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New California laws seek transparency, accountability for charter schools

Sam Corey
Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories discussing the abrupt closure of Sierra Montessori Academy.

Gavin Newsom called for more transparency in charter schools in his campaign for governor, and earlier this year signed laws geared to make that happen.

In March, among the first bills Newsom signed into law, ensures, like traditional public schools, charter school board meetings are public, prevent board members from voting on contracts if they have a “financial interest” and make sure public records are provided upon request.

On Oct. 3, Newsom signed legislation giving charter school authorizers more autonomy if charter schools are beginning to fail or struggle. The law also allows authorizers to “close a charter school for fiscal and governance concerns” or if not all students are being served.

Former Sierra Montessori Academy board member Dann Craven said the laws, which take effect Jan. 1, align with his hopes of ensuring proper procedure at charter schools. Craven wants authorizers to have the ability to apply consequences if charter school board members are violating the Brown Act. He also suggested allowing a county representative to sit on a charter school board.

Craven, who was among members of the Sierra Montessori Academy school board to be voted off the school’s board — by fellow board members — hopes this would prevent a situation similar to what happened at the school, where “the county is ultimately footing the bill” — cleaning up a mess it didn’t create — as it will have to help manage the school after it closed.

The state’s new legislation is also meant to allow high-performing charters to stay open and make it easier for local school boards to deny new charters, according to CalMatters. Charter school teachers will also have new credentialing requirements more aligned with traditional public schools.

As of 2013, 18 percent of Nevada County students were enrolled in charter schools. During the 2017-18 school year, that number rose to 40.6 percent, according to CalMatters.

Charter schools have long sparked debate across the country, the state and in Nevada County. In 2013, some administrators said they were unfair — stripping resources from traditional public schools and applying a different set of rules to follow. Others argued that charter schools provide more flexibility for students and their parents, frequently providing more attention to those struggling.

Level of responsibility

Darlene Waddle, chief business officer with the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools, said board members of charter schools should be made aware of their scope of responsibility before taking the job. She was also open to the idea of making charter school board members elected positions.

“I think it would help people understand their level of responsibility,” she said.

Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay said board members should get training from statewide organizations, like the Charter Schools Development Center, to understand budgeting and Brown Act procedure.

“One of their main responsibilities is watching the budget,” Lay said, adding he wants charter authorizers to be able to “intervene with teeth,” as he said there was little his office — the authorizer of the Sierra Montessori Academy charter — could do to keep the school in line.

Still, the main issue Lay said is negotiating what line should be kept and what consequence to issue.

“What’s an innocent mistake and what’s purposeful?” he asked.

Lay agrees with Craven’s suggestion of possibly having a voting county official sit on a charter school board. He also thought board members should not be able to get voted off the board, unless there is serious cause for doing so.

In California, charter schools are afforded an “automatic waiver from most state laws, regulations, and policies governing school districts,” according to the nonprofit Education Commission of the States.

However, if that precedent changes and rules are applied to make charter schools as accountable as traditional public schools, Lay said it could defeat the purpose of charter schools and create rules that are too broad, penalizing those who already follow the rules.

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey email scorey@theunion.com or call 530-477-4219.

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