Doors will open next year to a new charter school in Tuolumne County, which will emphasize leadership and community involvement and use art to teach core academic classes.
The Tuolumne County Board of Education voted Wednesday to approve Foothill Leadership Academy’s charter petition after nearly four hours of deliberation.
The public, tuition-free charter school will open in August 2014 and serve students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Students from other counties can also attend.
The board rejected a formal recommendation from Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva and his staff to deny the charter petition. The recommendation was based on several legal requirements they felt were not met in the 140-page petition.
The board approved the charter under the condition that at least some of those issues, particularly special education funding, be resolved in a “memorandum of understanding.”
The document, which will free the county schools office from paying for the academy’s special education program, will be presented to the board at the November meeting.
The staff recommendation contended the petition was not comprehensive regarding the facility, educational program, governance structure, employee qualifications, health and safety procedures, admissions, public employee retirement plan, closure protocol, administrative services, operational budget and financial statements, and potential civil liability effects.
Soulsbyville School District came to some of the same conclusions when it reviewed the petition earlier this year.
Foothill Leadership Academy organizers brought the petition to the county board for appeal after it was denied by Soulsbyville’s board of trustees in June.
Six parents and teachers, led by Copperopolis parent Emily McVey, gave Soulsbyville School District the petition in May, seeking the district’s sponsorship.
The other petitioners are McVey’s husband, Ian McVey, who will be the school’s director; Lisette Sweetland, Sierra Repertory Theatre’s company manager; Modesto Junior College and Columbia College professor Chad Redwing; teacher Niurka Benton; and local business owner Shawn Price.
A team of reviewers at Soulsbyville also identified issues with the governance structure, health and safety procedures, public employee retirement plan, administrative services, and facility.
Foothill Leadership Academy petitioners said they addressed those legal requirements at the Tuolumne County Board of Education meeting last week.
“The point of charter petitions is not to meet the standards and do everything that county schools do or district schools do,” said the school’s Sacramento-based attorney, Michelle Lopez. “Charter schools are different and they’re given flexibility to do different things.”
In addition to discussing legal opinions, the board expressed concerns about whether the school will reach its projected enrollment and be able to operate within its budget.
Foothill Leadership Academy anticipates an enrollment of 95 students the first year but said it could still operate within its budget with 80 students.
Silva said his office conducted a survey of people who signed the charter petition in April and May, asking if they have a genuine interest in enrolling their children in the school.
The survey identified about 30 prospective students.
Emily McVey later rebutted that it was not an “intent to enroll form,” and she and the other petitioners didn’t ask the 91 supporters to guarantee they would enroll their kids in the school.
The McVeys vocalized their confidence in the school’s outreach plan, which they have been waiting to implement pending charter approval.
Silva and the board also questioned how Foothill Leadership Academy will attract highly qualified teachers with its relatively long workweeks and its salary offer of $40,000 — $15,000 less than the county budgets on average.
Foothill Leadership Academy proponents said teaching jobs are scarce in today’s economy, and, for some educators, working in an environment they enjoy is more important than making money.
A recurrent topic discussed Wednesday was the charter school’s lack of facility, but petitioners said they couldn’t secure a lease without charter approval.
After hours of scrutiny and several supportive comments from audience members, trustees said the decision came down to whether they were willing to take a risk.
“When you start talking about risk, how about the risk of the kid in the traditional school that isn’t making it here?” asked trustee Joe von Herrmann. “If we don’t give them that opportunity, is that a risk we’re taking the other way? I think that’s the point of charter schools.”
Trustee Maureen Barreiro added, “My deepest belief is that many children do not fit in regular public school.”
She and other trustees expressed confidence in the McVeys, commending them for their hard work, sincerity and efforts to support the arts.
Although the “memorandum of understanding” is not yet completed, Foothill Leadership Academy can move forward with securing a facility, executing its outreach program, and other preparations.
“We are so excited and we are so grateful for the support we’ve received,” Emily McVey said after the meeting.