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Report rejects charter school.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

The Children's Peace Academy may not find a home in the Eugene School District - at least not without a struggle.

In a report going to the school board next Wednesday, Superintendent George Russell recommends denial of Wendy Strgar's application for the would-be charter school, citing "negative financial impacts" that outweigh the academy's potential benefits to the district.

The recommendation came as no surprise to Strgar, who last month turned in an application with the Bethel district on the assumption that Eugene might turn her down. At a work session last week, district staff and parents told the school board that Eugene's two existing elementary charter schools - The Village School and Ridgeline Montessori Public Charter School - have already taken a toll on neighborhood schools by luring away students and the state funds that follow them.

What did catch Strgar off guard was the report's criticism of her program and curriculum.

"Only three months ago a board member exclaimed, `We love it, we wish we could afford it,' ' she said. "And I was assured by the assistant superintendent that this was a beautiful application, that he didn't anticipate any prob- lems."

The Peace Academy would serve grades kindergarten through eighth, with the aim of preparing children to live in harmony with their global and local communities and the natural world.

An integrated curriculum would center on environmental sustainability, peace studies, global citizenship and self-discovery.

It would be the district's fourth charter school. 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.

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.

The lengthy staff report released Friday evaluates the Peace Academy application against the goals of the 1999 law, and claims that it comes up short in some areas.

For example, the report questions whether the school can deliver the kind of integrated, thematic approach it promises while also preparing students to meet Oregon's testing standards. It also finds the educational program lacking in its ability to serve low-achieving students.

The report also says the Peace Academy's program is not all that innovative or different from what can be found in existing district schools.

Strgar said every one of the report's negative findings is unsubstantiated.

"Now that they have fully grasped that they can't refuse this application based on their budgetary problems, they are now fabricating any reason to refuse this application," she said.

The primary justification for denial is that the school's value fails to outweigh "directly identifiable, significant and adverse" impacts on other elementary schools and the district as a whole.

The report says another charter elementary would further erode the district's funding base and result in lower enrollment at some of its already small and struggling elementary schools. That would lead to additional staff cuts and possible school closures, the report says, at a time when the district has already cut 55 teaching positions and expects a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall in the next school year.

According to a district financial analysis that has been challenged by some charter school advocates, the more students charter schools draw from existing district programs, the more it hurts the district.

For example, if a charter elementary school had 80 in-district students and 20 out-of-district students, at least 35 of the in-district students would have to come from private schools or home-schooling for the district to "break even." (Because they haven't been in the public school system, those students actually bring in new funds.)

But if more than 45 of those 80 students came from a district school, the district would lose money, according to staff.

The report concludes that there's a good chance the Peace Academy would be a drain to the district.

"Obviously, there's good in the proposal, but when you look at it, it is not significant enough to counteract the negative effects," Assistant Superintendent Jim Slemp said.

Board Chairwoman Jan Oliver said she hadn't yet read the report, but acknowledged it would be difficult to say yes to Strgar, given the current budget climate.

"This a school board that works extra hard and puts a great deal of thought into its decision-making," she said. "We clearly have challenges ahead of us, and the Children's Peace Academy finds itself in the middle of that. It is difficult for us to be as welcoming and positive in a time when we are so completely challenged."

Strgar said she and her supporters remain committed to opening the Peace Academy in Eugene, and - should the Eugene board turn her down - is hopeful the Bethel district will be more welcoming.

Strgar also would not rule out the possibility of appealing a denial to the State Board of Education, which could decide to sponsor the school itself.

WHAT'S NEXT

Peace Academy decision: The Eugene School Board will review the proposal at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Education Center, 200 N. Monroe St.
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Title Annotation:Eugene superintendent says the Peace Academy's impact on funding is not worth it; Schools
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 22, 2003
Words:869
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