Guest opinion: Schools and dollars — what is fair?
We appreciated reading the Nov. 17 PI article covering how one charter school is receiving fruits from the RFSD bond. We respect Rob Stein for casting a view beyond our community. Mr. Stein profiled districts that have been successful in sharing their local taxpayer dollars with charter schools like those in Durango and Denver.
Locally, Carbondale Community School, a charter of the RFSD, received bond money, but two other charter schools, Two Rivers Community School (TRCS) and Ross Montessori (RM) did not. Jointly, TRCS and RM, both K-8 schools, serve more than 500 students and their families. They were chartered through the Charter School Institute, a district of the Colorado Department of Education, and are public schools accountable for the same measures. One wonders why they should not receive the same local money to support the same young people from the community who ultimately graduate from the same high schools. After all, their parents paid those taxes too.
Mr. Stein noted in the article that perhaps in the future the RFSD might consider sharing these dollars if these schools mirror the socio-economic and ethnic mix of students as the RFSD. We can only assume that this is due to the cost of educating these students. We would like to enlarge the view of dollars and charter schools as it relates to facilities, administration and high-risk students.
TRCS was created by volunteers who worked for years to formulate its plan. Unlike the new K-8 school, they were unable to hire a full- time administrator for a year preceding opening. Instead, volunteers spent countless hours writing applications to be accredited, finding money to start the school and securing a facility. What is the cost savings here?
Unlike RFSD schools, which do not pay to lease, TRCS has been leasing a vacant postal service station for two years and has secured money to purchase and renovate it. The cost will be about $8.5 million and will ultimately accommodate the same number of students as the new K-8 school, which is estimated to cost about $34 million.
Ross Montessori has also recently completed a building project costing about $9 million at no additional cost to the taxpayers. Our schools may not have the same bells and whistles, but they function and educate students. What is the cost savings here?
At TRCS, we do not have an administrative role for every category for which we are accountable, including special education, English as a second language, intervention, assistant principal(s), marketing, public relations or academic coach. The school is run by two administrators who cover education, business and all the duties therein. Did they take on this level of responsibility for increased pay? No, in fact the salary is considerably less than district administrative salaries. What is the cost savings here?
At TRCS, we educate an increasing number of students who have come from neighboring districts and arrive well behind grade level, These may not always be students of color, but their needs are significant, and we embrace them as we do all of our students.
We will step out on a limb here and say that in the case of TRCS, we are careful with our resources because they are not a given. We are accredited as a school only if our academic and financial operations are in check. We reapply every three to five years. If we are subpar, chances are we will cease to exist. All staff are at-will employees. If we can’t get the job done, we go away. Again, we ask, what is the cost savings here?
Finally, the leaders of these two charter schools are experienced administrators who acquired much of their expertise from many years of heavy lifting in district schools. As a result, we have great respect for these schools. We branched out from district schools because we wanted to offer a choice to students in this valley.
Our premise is not that these choice schools are better than district schools; they do, however, offer an option to students who are looking for an education that best meets their personal beliefs about how schooling can be done. In the case of TRCS, we have a weighted lottery for minority and low-income students, and will eventually mirror district demographics. In the meantime, should we have the opportunity to align with the RFSD and share local taxpayer dollars, we have no doubt that the parents paying these taxes whose children attend our schools would consider this the right and equitable course of action.
Perhaps in the future there can be educational discourse about the pros and cons of operating a school district as opposed to a district of schools. A district of schools model can give leaders the freedom to establish a vision and mission designed by their stakeholders. Schools can brand their approach to education and make timely decisions without the onerous task of seeking approval from a bureaucratic hierarchy. Rather than being controlled by a large vessel, leaders steer one ship, which is responsive to its constituents. The overall responsibility for success is substantial, but the freedom to act on behalf of a small, committed group is the payment.
Adriana Ayala-Hire is director of business and outreach for Two Rivers Charter School, and Rebecca Ruland is education director.