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District struggles with charter plans.

Byline: ANNE WILLIAMS The Register-Guard

Wendy Strgar has waited a long time for an answer, and on Feb. 26, she'll get it.

But it may not be the one she wants to hear.

After a four-month postponement, the Eugene School Board will consider Strgar's proposal to open the Children's Peace Academy, a public charter school focusing on global citizenship and environmental sustainability. It would be the district's fourth charter school.

Before that decision, however, the school board will have a broader discussion about the impact - financial and otherwise - that additional charter schools could have on the district.

At this point, board members are uneasy at the prospect of more charter schools. Enrollment has slipped steadily in recent years, and the district is facing a funding shortfall stemming from a dip in state income tax revenue and a spike in costs, especially for the Public Employees Retirement System.

Charter schools draw students who might otherwise attend regular public schools, and receive the lion's share of the per-pupil state funding allocation for each of them.

Fiscal uncertainty was the reason the board gave when it decided last October to delay action on the Peace Academy application.

"Primary concerns are the effects of further erosion of state funding on the district's instructional program and the potential impact on existing neighborhood, alternative and charter schools of adding another 'choice' program to an already wide range of elementary offerings," Assistant Superintendent Jim Slemp wrote in a letter to Superintendent Stan Bunn. Bunn extended the legal deadline to late February.

The district is already home to three charter schools: The Village School, which serves grades kindergarten to 7; Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School, which serves K through 6; and Pioneer Youth Corps Military Academy, which serves grades 6 through 12.

The Peace Academy would serve kindergarten through grade 8. Two other would-be schools - the Network Charter School and the Field of Dreams Middle School (see accompanying story) - also hope to gain charters this year.

Charter schools grew out of 1999 legislation enabling the creation of taxpayer-funded schools that operate with greater autonomy than regular public schools. For example, only half the teachers in a charter school must be state-certified.

The law aimed to spur innovation and create choice. Anyone with an idea and the commitment, including parent groups, alternative education providers or even school districts, may apply for charter status. There are 23 such schools operating in Oregon, with more scheduled to open in the fall.

Through their sponsoring district, charter schools serving elementary and middle school students must receive at least 80 percent of the state's per-pupil funding allocation, and those serving high school students receive at least 95 percent. The remainder goes to the district.

Funding has been a continuing source of conflict between the Eugene district and administrators from the three charter schools, who believe more dollars should follow the children.

The Eugene district, however, says the administration of and assistance to charter schools has cost a great deal in staff time and expertise. And by luring an increasing number of students away from the district's schools, the charter schools contribute to declining enrollment, making it difficult to sustain programs in many small elementary schools.

Board Chairwoman Jan Oliver said the board will struggle with the question of granting more charters regardless of the outcome of the Jan. 28 vote on an income tax measure that would lessen cuts to schools.

"Everything is so finely balanced, and every dollar is so sorely needed, that the loss of a couple of kids to an elementary school can throw off a classroom and can ripple through in terms of a program," she said.

By law, school boards cannot simply decide to reject all future charter applicants, said Joni Gilles, who coordinates charter school issues for the Department of Education. Each application must be evaluated, and a district must demonstrate "directly identifiable, significant and adverse impacts on the quality of the public education of the other students in the district" before turning one down.

"It can't be, `It just costs us money,' ' Gilles said.

If a school board turns down a charter bid, that school may appeal for sponsorship from the State Board of Education. That happened with Eugene's first charter applicant, The Village School. Through mediation, the district and the school worked out their differences.

If they hadn't been able to - and if the state board had deemed the application worthy - the state could have approved the bid. Under that arrangement, a school receives 90 percent of the state's per-pupil allocation for students in kindergarten through grade 8. The state gets 5 percent and the district gets the remaining 5 percent. So the district stands to lose even more per-pupil funding if the district rejects the application only to have it approved by the state.

This week, the State Board of Education approved its first charter applicant, Rose City Charter School, which had appealed after being turned down by the Portland School Board.

Oliver said she's well aware of that possibility with the pending applicants.

"It's worth that risk, if we know that we really can't do it," she said. "And it may well be that we've hit that point where as a board we're going to have to look and say, `This is an untenable situation.' '

Strgar had anticipated board approval last fall, which would have put the school in line to receive much-needed federal start-up dollars. The school already received a $50,000 planning grant through the Department of Education a year ago; with a charter in place, it would get another $300,000.

But things have moved ahead despite that, Strgar said. In December, the school hired Helen Park, the former principal of Wellsprings Friends School and the Northwest Youth Corps' Outdoor School, as the school's administrator.

"I love the concept of the Peace Academy," said Park, who is working without pay for now. "To work with younger children and have them grow up with this as the norm, where they learn about sharing resources, about nonviolent ways to deal with conflict, that the world belongs to all of us and we need to take care of it - it's very exciting."

Strgar said she knew Park was the person for the job the first time she spoke with her.

"The organization really needed fresh energy and really experienced energy," said Strgar. "So it really felt like a miracle that Helen was willing to do this."

Co-founder Rebeccah White left the academy last November, parting ways with Strgar on the school's vision and structure, Strgar said.

Still intent on opening this fall, Strgar decided to hedge her bets. Last week, she submitted an application to the Bethel School District, which will consider it only if the Eugene board turns it down, Bethel Superintendent Kent Hunsaker said.

"Basically what I told them is we would take the initial steps, but we don't want to go through a whole bunch of work looking at a charter school proposal when their desire is to be in (the Eugene district)," he said.

While most of the interested families live in the Eugene district, Strgar and Park said they'd be happy to work with either district. Bethel has no charter schools, although it's had a contract with HomeSource - a nonprofit education center offering courses for home-schooled students - that works in a similar fashion.

Strgar said the Eugene district will miss an opportunity if the board turns down the charter. Such a school would bring the district national, even international, attention, she said, especially given the current political climate and threat of war in Iraq.

It also could attract students who attend private schools or are home-schooled.

"I would still say without hesitation that this school will make them money," she said.
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Title Annotation:Eugene: Board members are uneasy about the financial impact of proposed new schools.; Schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 25, 2003
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