Charter school plans sparked emotional testimony at Monday's meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education.
"I am more than a little surprised," school board member Joe Arness said of the discussion.
The board voted on the proposal for a new Montessori primary school in Soldotna and the renewal of the district's two existing charter schools, Aurora Borealis in Kenai and Fireweed Academy in Homer.
Although the board approved all three, parents and teachers expressed concerns and asked probing questions about issues of financing and school choice. The comments revealed confusion and mixed emotions about charter schools, which first started on the peninsula in 1997.
The renewal for Aurora Borealis, which has been expanding and demonstrating exemplary student test scores, passed unanimously without comment.
But concerns about finances, both within the charter schools and districtwide, prompted soul-searching about the other two.
A delegation of parents and staff from the south peninsula spoke on behalf of Fireweed Academy, which has 27 students and is struggling to remain solvent. They spoke about enthusiasm, flexibility and personal attention at the school, and they praised the district and the Homer community for supporting education options.
"I've seen a lot of kids who haven't been able to work out things at other schools thrive," said parent Michelle Bournonville.
Gary Whiteley, the district's assistant superintendent for instruction, said the administration's initial recommendation was to extend the academy's charter for one year only because of lack of funding.
Teacher Christine "Kiki" Abrahamson responded, "I think signing a one-year charter is signing our death warrant.
"... We are going to do everything we can to stay solvent, even if I have to quit my job so we can hire a first-year teacher."
After discussing the situation with the school delegation during an afternoon work session, the board agreed to approve a five-year renewal. But it added the stipulation that the academy's board bring financial reports to the school board three times during the next year. Whiteley told the board that if the school runs out of money, its charter can be canceled at any time.
With those conditions, the board unanimously approved the renewal.
Others present were less supportive. Staff from mainstream public schools expressed concern that charter schools are diverting resources and students away from other schools.
"I am a dedicated public school teacher," said Barbara George, who teaches kindergarten at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School.
She noted that class sizes at charter schools are significantly smaller than those of conventional schools and expressed admiration for what they had accomplished. But she stopped short of approval.
"I agree there need to be options, but not at the expense of public education," she said.
Buck George, her husband and the vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Support Association representing support staff in upcoming contract negotiations, urged caution and financial scrutiny of charter school costs.
Hans Bilben, the president of the teachers' union, the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, said adding charters shortchanges students elsewhere.
"I would recommend against any more at this time," he told the board.
Parents in attendance had diverse opinions. Some advocated the Montessori school, while others expressed concern that it might damage other stressed schools in the area.
"I hate to see another school open up, even a charter school, when we cannot support the schools we already have," said Lisa Quesnel of North Kenai.
"It's the way education should be. (But) we cannot afford it."
The charter school advocates were dismayed by the remarks.
"I know this is about money. I am really confused as to why people think the district is subsidizing charter schools," Abrahamson said.
Susan Larned, a former school board member who heads the planned Montessori school, said it would have a positive benefit for the community and existing schools.
"I think it is a win-win for both Soldotna Elementary, where we hope to be housed, and the families," she said.
Board member Arness agreed.
"Charter schools are a way to bring in other students. They do not drain money from our schools.
"... I am confident that Susan Larned will run a good Montessori program. ... I am confident that it will benefit our district as a whole."
Asked for specifics about whether charter schools will impact other schools' finances, Finance Director Melody Douglas responded that the answer depends on who enrolls.
"If all the students come from outside the district, no. If they transfer within, it would. It is an unknown situation now," she said.
In the past, roughly half of charter school pupils have come from home-school families entering the district for the first time.
The board amended Larned's charter request to add two requirements: Enrollment for the new Soldotna Montessori Charter School must be at least 40; and all teachers must be certified by the state as well as by the Montessori program.
Larned expressed confidence that she will exceed the necessary enrollment.
The vote on the new school was 6-to-1, with Margaret Gilman dissenting. Gilman cited uncertainty about potential costs to the district as the reason for her opposition.
Board member Deborah Germano said that one of the district's goals is to enhance enrollment and that charter schools foster that.
"It's going to balance out in the long run," she said.
"These are all our kids. They all belong to all of us. We need to work together. ... I don't see (charter schools) taking away. I see them meeting needs."
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