The Jefferson County Board of Education split the bill with charter school applicants on Thursday.
After unanimously denying the application of the Alexandria School of Innovation, the board voted 3-2 to conditionally approve the application of Golden View Classical Academy, with Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman voting against it. The decisions came after three dozen people spoke to the board both in support of and against the two charters. It looked for a while like the board was going to work collaboratively on the issues before them, as the decision to deny Alexandria was painless.
Board members agreed Alexandria’s application simply had too many holes, including questions surrounding enrollment, conflicts of interest between staff and board members, a focus on a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program already predominant at other schools in the district and a lack of parent support, to name a few. They encouraged organizers to come back and apply again once they were able to address all the concerns.
But the acceptance of Golden View caused dissension among board members. Fellman interrupted Golden View founder Derec Shuler on several occasions, talked over fellow board member Julie Williams, and directed snide remarks at Witt. At the same time, community members not happy with the direction of the board laughed at and held side conversations about Williams when she raised questions.
All board members were OK with Golden View’s planned curriculum of Core Knowledge and classical training, but the school’s partnership with Hillsdale College, which is known for its Judeo-Christian based education, was an issue for Fellman and Dahlkemper.
“Isn’t it true that the goal of the Barney Charter School initiative is to create political and potentially religious charter schools?” Fellman asked. Shuler responded that the school will not include a religious teaching. Dahlkemper questioned Shuler’s personal views on religion and homosexuality. “Hillsdale’s primary model is the Judeo-Christian faith and a belief that homosexuality is wrong,” she said. “Do you hold these beliefs as well?” Shuler said he had never seen those statements from Hillsdale. “We do have an anti-discrimination policy at the school,” Shuler said. Dahlkemper continued to push him on his own beliefs. “In a public setting, and in the context of our school, that does not apply. And my own personal beliefs don’t matter,” Shuler said. “Again, we are a non-religious school. It keeps coming up, but we have been very clear to the board in our statement of our intent to follow the law.”
Golden View’s charter application was one of only three statewide to receive the highest rating – “funded with distinction” – from the Colorado Department of Education’s Start-Up Grant program. Still, all board members were concerned with a laundry list of unusual waivers that the school has requested, such as exemptions from district policies that include unlawful discrimination, bullying, and student rights and responsibilities. Shuler told the board the waivers are not intended to ignore the policies. “Most of our objections have to do with reporting channels,” Shuler said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to have those. It means we’re going to replace it with language that aligns with our charter school model.”
Witt, Williams, and fellow board member John Newkirk wanted to conditionally approve the charter so long as the organizers and the district could work out the language of the policies. That puts Superintendent Dan McMinimee in charge of deciding if the waivers were appropriate, a common arrangement for conditional approvals. But Dahlkemper and Fellman expressed discomfort with the arrangement. They wanted the board to come back in April and revisit the waivers and approve them themselves. “I very much want to approve this,” Fellman said. “What is really holding me back is I want to see how those conditions are being met. I think it’s so sad that we are so close — again — and we’re not going to be able to come to an understanding.” McMinimee reminded the board that bringing the matter back to the board in April instead of allowing his staff to work out the details would be in direct contrast to board policy to handle it that way. “I know it’s been done that way in another district I was in, but that was in their policy,” McMinimee said. “I think this might be changing policy and procedure in the middle. That would be my only concern.”
The board’s attorney Brad Miller pointed out that the law dictates the time frame around approval and contracting and that only by mutual agreement can it be changed. “I appreciate the curriculum. I appreciate the approach. I support it, and I think there are some good aspects here,” Dahlkemper said. “But we’re ultimately responsible for what we approve. I am not comfortable proving this until I know the conditions are met.”
Newkirk, Witt and Williams moved forward, voting in favor of Golden View, adding they were satisfied that the charter school had met the requirements and that district staff would work out the details.
Sherrie Peif reports on education for CompleteColorado.com