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By Hollie Lund
The relationship between school districts and public charter schools is inherently hostile. It all starts with a community saying that the school district is failing them, and that they can do it better. So when the legal counsel for our local charter school repeatedly assured us last week that the school district was “just as interested as we were” in making the school a success, I was immediately suspicious. Especially in light of recent events. I’m a firm believer that actions speak louder than words.
The Mosier School was built in 1920. It’s the first thing that greets you as you wind into town on the Historic Columbia River Scenic Highway, and it’s the pride of our community. Today, the school building is home to the Mosier Community School, a charter school with School District 21 in North Wasco County. The school has been in operation for just four years, but is already demonstrating tremendous success. It earned an “exceptional” rating in its 2004-05 state report card, and its students consistently exceed expectations in reading, literature and math.
Any rational person would see this as reason enough to renew the school’s charter. But not District 21. The District has decided to non-renew the Mosier Community School’s charter, and now — if the school board is unable to re-negotiate a new one — there is a very real possibility that the community of Mosier will lose its only school.
How can a District close down its most successful charter school? According to the Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA), a charter school can only be terminated if it fails to: meet the terms of an approved charter; meet the requirements of student performance; correct a violation of federal or state law; maintain insurance; or maintain financial stability.
District 21, however, provided such reasons as: failure to submit building use permits, such as those filled out for birthday parties and other special events, to the District (never mind that the District never in four years bothered to ask for one); being one month tardy in presenting their annual 2005-06 report (never mind that it was the District that scheduled the presentation); late filing of the school’s proof of insurance (never mind that the District received their own proof of insurance on the exact same day); and failure to receive proper approvals for the installation of new lighting throughout its buildings (never mind that the District changed their procedures half way through the project, that the project was carried out at no cost to the District, that the lighting should have been replaced more than a decade ago — by the District, and that the project even included the installation of energy-saving lighting and fixtures, reducing the overall operating costs of the school).
The District did express concern about the school’s financial instability — a justifiable reason for terminating a charter school according to state regulation. If, of course, it is a sound concern. The District’s concern, however, is that the school is losing its start-up grants at the end of this year, and there are no funds to replace them. Start up funds, though, are by definition intended to assist schools in their start up costs — developing curricula, training staff, purchasing textbooks, and the like. With the Mosier Community School off and running (it’s in its fourth year), this sounds like effective planning to me, not financial instability.
Taken together, this does not strike me as a District genuinely interested in the health and sustainability of its charter school. It sounds more like a District that is bitter over the fact that the Mosier Community School consistently outperforms their other schools; a District that would just as soon close the school and sell the property to developers than re-negotiate a new charter.
I hope the District 21 school board will prove me wrong, but I don’t think it will happen without a fight. If you would like to help in the effort to save the Mosier Community School, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. You can also help by sending a letter to the Oregon Department of Education and to your state representatives, urging them to adopt legislation that better supports and protects our charter schools.
Hollie Lund lives in Mosier.