School Board Finds Charter School Application ‘Incomplete’

September 5, 2014

by Barbara O’Brien

By a vote of 4 to 1, Windham School Board members found the application for the proposed charter school “incomplete” and, therefore, “disapproved and denied” the request from the Educational Choices Foundation.

What was slated to be a 90-minute discussion on September 2, turned into another late night marathon; with the decision to deny the application for “Windham Academy” coming just before midnight.  Voting in favor of denying the application for the locally funded charter school were Chairman Jerome Rekart, Vice-chairman Dennis Senibaldi and school board members Rob Breton and Michael Joanis.  The only vote in opposition of denying the application was from school board member Ken Eyring, who had been supportive of the concept from the beginning.

The application requesting local school district approval for a charter school was presented to the school board by ECF members on July 1.  By state statute, the school board was required to reach a decision and notify the New Hampshire Department of Education of the reason for that decision, in writing, no later than September 15.  The main reasons for the vote to deny the application included a lack of sufficient financial information, demonstrating the impact of the charter school on taxpayers; insufficient information regarding educational standards and accountability; and how any potential surplus funds at the end of each school year would be handled.

The Educational Choices Foundation had two options when it decided to propose a charter school.  It could have either requested approval from the local school board or gone directly to the State Department of Education.  ECF members said they chose the local route so that Windham students would be given priority during enrollment.  Windham Academy would also be open to students from other communities.

Following a lengthy discussion on the need for more specific details regarding educational standards and accountability, a topic that was brought up during several earlier meetings, school board member Michael Joanis raised the issue of the financial impact of the proposed charter school.  Based on calculations presented by SAU 95 Business Administrator Adam Steel, Joanis said the impact on taxpayers would involve “significant dollars;” an amount totaling approximately $6.2 million over the life of the proposed five-year contract between Windham Academy and the Windham School District.  Chairman Rekart agreed that the cost to the school district could be significant.  Rekart said he presented Steel’s calculations to two different certified public accountants and was told that the impact could be about 67 cents per one thousand dollars on the tax rate.

Board member Dennis Senibaldi also expressed concern about the cost to taxpayers, saying, “This is where I’m stuck.”  Calling the potential financial impact “the elephant in the room,” Senibaldi said he trusted Steel’s calculations.  Senibaldi said he, too, believes the proposed charter school would result in increased taxes.”  I have to go with Adam’s numbers,” he said.

Ken Eyring said he wasn’t as convinced of the validity of Steel’s calculations as Senibaldi was.  Nobody on the ECF wants to see the tax rate increase, either, Eyring said, adding that he feels it would be unwise “to pull the plug” on the proposal, at this point.  “It would behoove us to let the process unfold to the next level,” Eyring commented.

Members of the ECF also contested Steel’s financial estimates.  “We are conservative taxpayers, too,” ECF member Tom Murray said.  “I wholeheartedly disagree with Adam’s numbers,” Murray said.  “It would be a disservice to the community not to move forward” with the charter school proposal, he added.  ECF members said they were only asking for seven percent of the annual school district budget, to educate 12 percent of the district’s students, adding that they wouldn’t be proposing a charter school if it was going to cost the school district more money.

Windham Academy is proposed to encompass grades one through eight for an eventual total enrollment of 300 students.  The initial proposal called for the charter school to begin operating for the 2015-2016 school year.  The location of the proposed school has not yet been determined.

Even if the school board had approved the application for Windham Academy, the proposal would still have had to go to the State Department of Education and, if approved there, would have, then, been placed on the ballot in Windham.  The ECF does have the right to appeal the school board’s denial to the State Board of Education.

In a second motion, however, school board members unanimously voted to send a letter to the ECF requesting that the group withdraw its application to the Windham School District and transfer its efforts, instead, toward applying for approval of a state-funded charter school.  The motion, which was made by Mike Joanis, garnered the approval of all five school board members.  “It certainly is an option,” School District Attorney Gordon Graham commented.

“I like the motion,” Rekart said, adding that he felt it was a win-win situation for both the school district and Windham Academy.  Eyring said that he felt Joanis’ idea was a good concept, one that has potential.  However, even if the ECF receives state funding, Eyring said, he believes Windham Academy would still need to receive some amount of tuition from the school district, in order to provide the desired level of education.  ECF members agreed with Eyring, stating that the proposed charter school would struggle financially under the state-funded model.

In making his motion, Joanis added that he would like to see the school district partnering with the proposed charter school, even if the ECF moves forward with seeking state funding.  By working together, Joanis said he believes any remaining issues regarding the application for a charter could be solved.  Joanis emphasized that he wants Windham Academy to succeed.

Eyring said he feels that Windham has a great school system, as well as wonderful teachers, but also believes the community would benefit from the option of having a charter school.  Charter schools provide flexibility in the methods of delivering education, Eyring said, allowing students to move at their own pace and experience challenges not available in the school district.  “Windham Academy will fill a niche that will serve our students well,” he said.

ECF member Sean Donahue responded to the passage of the motion to withdraw the application to the school district and pursue State funding for a charter school.  “We have to determine among ourselves if certain concerns with the state-funded model can be overcome,” Donahue said.  “The idea has to be considered thoughtfully,” he added.  If the ECF decides to go the state-funded route, it would most likely delay the opening of Windham Academy for a year, until the 2016-2017 school year.  Murray said that there were already 41 students pre-registered for Windham Academy for the 2015-2016 school year.