Different schools, different results
While one Nevada County school district reels from the problems of its lone charter school, another prepares to become one of the state’s few all-charter districts.
This dichotomy has Penn Valley’s Ready Springs and San Juan Ridge’s Twin Ridges districts going in opposite directions, with the state threatening to withhold funds from Vantage Point Charter because of inaccuracies in its attendance accounting and the latter district preparing to boost its per-pupil funding.
How Ready Springs got into this mess, and how Twin Ridges succeeded, reflect divergent management styles: one plagued by years of strained relations and mistrust between an elected charter council of parents and the elected Ready Springs school board; the other helped by delineated responsibilities given to each of Twin Ridges’ 14 schools, 12 as distant as Napa and Ukiah.
“The relationship we have with our schools is one that’s built strongly on mutual trust,” said Larry Pastore, director of business services for the 1,725-student Twin Ridges district. “It’s how we survive.”
A lack of trust nearly stripped Vantage Point of its charter status last week, when founding administrator Tessa McGarr was reassigned to another position within the district.
Ready Springs Superintendent Merrill Grant – also principal of Ready Springs School – likens Vantage Point’s relationship with his 340-student district to “a bad marriage. As we went along, there just became more and more problems. There was just a lack of trust on both ends.”
McGarr established Vantage Point a decade ago as a home-school program that expanded to a charter program after the school moved onto the Ready Springs campus.
Last year, Vantage Point officials say they were forced out of the elementary school building and into a new one before they were ready. They also claim that they tried to hire an accountant to oversee their books.
A state agency recently reviewed Vantage Point records after County Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer discovered discrepancies in its home-school attendance records.
Members of the school’s policymaking charter council also believe Grant wanted to remove McGarr, a charge Grant refutes.
“Ready Springs sees Tessa as a threat to their school,” said Linda Benoit, who pulled her children from the charter school after last week’s meeting and was due to become a member of the school’s charter council.
“As far as we’re concerned, we will never have a working relationship with Ready Springs,” Benoit said.
McAteer said Ready Springs “didn’t clearly define the rules” when it created Vantage Point’s charter agreement. As a result, the charter council took on responsibilities of the sponsoring school board.
“That’s where the distrust begins,” said McAteer, who calls charter schools “a failed experiment.”
McAteer has written blistering letters to the Ready Springs board admonishing it for its failure to communicate, a failure that has led to deficits in Vantage Point’s budgets in the past.
“They’re not living up to their potential,” he said of Vantage Point. “I’ve wanted the fighting to end for years so we can simply worry about the education of our children.”
The fiscal management team, McAteer noted, was admonished five years ago for the same attendance accounting discrepancies in a controversial distance-learning program that eventually cost Superintendent Pete Babcock his job. Grant is the district’s fifth superintendent in seven years.
Grant supports the school and says he’s got some work to do in mending fences, as do Vantage Point parents.
“I think the education and the philosophy should remain status quo, but we need to do a better job of communicating. I’m not asking for trust; it’s earned. We’re going to be centered on the students,” Grant said.
Twin Ridges survives on a complex plan that centralizes management at a district service center that processes payrolls and budgets and screens teacher candidates. The San Juan Ridge-based board meets with school administrators periodically, while Superintendent Dave Taylor travels the state observing his schools.
“We offer a great deal for our schools, and we expect a great deal of accountability. Our board is very supportive of charter schools,” Pastore said.
A steering committee of school administrators meets monthly to discuss fiscal matters and state education issues pertinent to the district, and charter councils of parents are involved as well.
“There’s a lot of hands in the pot, but we have become a cooperative, a cooperative that believes there is strength in numbers,” Pastore said.
In a sense, one school’s mistake could have an equally adverse effect on all the rest in Twin Ridges, which forces them to work together to minimize errors.
“It’s not for the purposes of controlling their operations,” board member Larry Kiser said. “It’s so the district can have qualified teachers and careful financial planning. We still, however, want our schools to maintain a sense of autonomy.”
The district is poised this week to vote on a proposal that would create the state’s newest charter district, guaranteeing funding levels remain at about $1,000 more per student than the state average.
They must ratify their plan and send it to the state by July 1.
In the meantime, Grant said he’s confident Vantage Point’s financial situation will improve. More importantly, he’s determined to see the rancor disappear.
“Our hard work is just beginning,” he said. “We have to prove that we will have a vested interest in the parents and the school. I’m looking forward to new beginnings.”
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