The Tuolumne County Board of Education discussed the future of Golden Lakes Charter School Monday and considered hiring consultants to assess its financial situation.
Less than a year after opening in Don Pedro, Golden Lakes has fallen in the red by about $200,000 and taken out a further $925,000 in loans. To balance its budget, it must either continue to cut staff or increase enrollment, a goal that county school administrators have called unrealistic.
The board debated hiring the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state agency that helps school districts avoid financial distress, in order to evaluate Golden Lakes Charter’s 2012-13 budget.
Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva said he was concerned about the school’s debt and the county office’s potential responsibility for it. Until this morning, he was unaware of a $250,000 loan that the charter received from the California Department of Education.
“When we began hearing that information, we had red flags that were raised,” Silva said.
The Tuolumne County Office of Education approved the Golden Lakes charter, an overall proposal for the school, in 2010 and had never approved a charter before. That made the services of FCMAT necessary, according to Silva.
“We’re fairly new in the charter industry,” he said. “We want a set of experienced eyes.”
Board member Linda Millhollin said the added scrutiny for Golden Lakes Charter would be unfair.
“I don’t think there’s anything in this county school-wise that’s been done, since I’ve been connected with the schools in 1964, that has had any more scrutiny (or) any more overviews … than this charter school,” Millhollin said. “And I am not willing to spend one more penny on looking into it.”
“I’m afraid that the publicity from today’s meeting will cause the charter school not to have the children they need … to run it,” she added.
Board member Joe von Herrmann questioned the urgency behind Wednesday’s board meeting, which had the sole purpose of deciding whether to hire the FCMAT team.
The team’s cost to the Tuolumne County Office of Education would be about $8,500, Silva said.
Mari Brabbin, executive director of Golden Lakes Charter, noted the cost to her school would be far higher — even if FCMAT found no change was needed.
“We will be in the press for FCMAT looking into us,” Brabbin said. “The damage will already have been done.”
Brabbin and staff members will undertake what she called an “intensive” campaign to recruit students in coming weeks. They will set up booths in supermarkets at Sonora, Don Pedro and Waterford to recruit new students.
The school’s proposed 2012-13 budget hinges on an both enrollment increase and an increase in the number of students who attend on the average day, or “average daily attendance.” Schools get their funding on the basis of average daily attendance, making it a more important measure.
Last year Golden Lakes, a K-12 school, had an average of 80 students attend each day during its second attendance reporting period. In its 2012-13 budget, it plans for an average daily attendance of about 123 students.
Of the 111 students currently signed up, only 42 are from Tuolumne County. The others are from Mariposa, Stanislaus and Merced counties.
Silva said Golden Lakes failed to meet the enrollment goals in its original charter agreement as of June.
“There’s still going to be less than the amount that this board approved the charter on,” he said.
Brabbin called for better communication with the county schools office, which would make the services of FCMAT unnecessary.
“I think we could continue to strengthen our relationship and save $8,500,” she said. “The questions can be answered given the opportunity to work together.”
The Tuolumne County Board of Education ultimately voted not to request the services of FCMAT, meaning that Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Tami Ethier will continue reviewing Golden Lakes’ 2012-13 budget.
Another issue of concern raised by Silva at Wednesday’s board meeting was a potential conflict of interest between Karl Yoder, who works for the Sacramento-based firm Delta Managed Solutions, and Golden Lakes.
As part of Delta Managed Solutions, which provides administrative services to charter schools, Yoder helped develop Golden Lakes’ budget. He has said his personal retirement portfolio would suffer greatly if the charter were denied, according to Ethier.
Yoder said he never made the statement and that one of Golden Lakes’ loans could be refinanced to lessen the financial involvement of Delta Managed Solutions. He added that there are three individual investors who have a stake in the loan.
Golden Lakes opened last year as “the first locally governed school” for students in the LaGrange and Don Pedro area.
First housed in the Lake Don Pedro Baptist Church, then a pizza parlor, it now occupies its own building at 5021 LaGrange Road in Don Pedro.
Its lower-than-expected enrollment led to the elimination of a full-time custodial position and a full-time teaching position last semester.
But the school recently purchased playground equipment from LaGrange Elementary and will also construct a 24- by 36-foot greenhouse. The first day of school is August 20.
As with other California public schools, Golden Lakes could see its financial prospects brighten if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative is approved Nov. 6. If the initiative is voted down, all public schools will lose funding to the tune of at least $457 per student.