Assessment

The California Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium accrues data for Tuolumne County schools. The following numbers show the percentage of students below the state standard, defined as “Level 3.”

County data and Foothill Leadership Academy 2014-15 and 2015-16 data provided by TCSOS. 2016-17 data provided by CA Department of Education:

*ELA (English/Language Arts)

Foothill Leadership Academy

ELA

2014-15: 59%

2015-16: 72%

2016-17: 66.2%

Math

2014-15: 70% below standard

2015-16: 80% below standard

2016-17: 83.1% below standard

Tuolumne County:

ELA: 53.2% Math: 68.03%

2016-17 data provided by CA Department of Education:

Belleview Elementary:

ELA: 55.55% Math: 80.8%

Tenaya Elementary:

ELA: 65.32% Math: 84.68%

Columbia Elementary:

ELA: 57.65% Math: 65.89%

Curtis Creek Elementary:

ELA: 51.42% Math: 67.74%

Jamestown Elementary:

ELA: 68.52% Math: 79.27%

Sonora Elementary School:

ELA: 46.58% Math: 56.94%

Soulsbyville Elementary:

ELA: 58.59% Math: 72.61%

Summerville Elementary:

ELA: 57.25% Math: 66.27%

Twain Harte Elementary:

ELA: 52.9% Math: 50.0%

Gold Rush Charter (K-12):

ELA: 60.62% Math: 74.87%

Chinese Camp Elementary School (3-6):

ELA: 44.23% Math: 44.83%

A Sonora charter school is at risk of having its charter revoked or not renewed by the Tuolumne County Board of Education due to a decline in state-administered academic test performance and concerns about their fiscal solvency.

The Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office (TCSOS) said Foothill Leadership Academy could be closed at the conclusion of their five-year charter in 2019, if test results and financial problems are not addressed.

Foothill Leadership Academy’s administrators say they are not worried about the renewal process.

“From our perspective this is day to day business,” said Emily McVey, Director of Development and Community Outreach. “The leadership and staff is not concerned about renewal.”

According to 2016-17 state testing data for the nine K-8 elementary schools in the county, Foothill Leadership Academy has the second largest percentage of students falling below the English/language arts and math standard.

And in February, the school’s checking account dipped to a balance of (negative) - $683.10.

Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin has no direct decisive role in the charter’s renewal by the county board of education, but she functions as an administrative agent of oversight to ensure the school’s compliance with the memorandum of understanding (MOU) that governs the school’s relationship with the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office and the Tuolumne County Board of Education.

“There is no item in the MOU that is more important than any other,” she said, but any of the five individual violations of noncompliance registered by the school since its inception in 2014 — three times for failing to notify the TCSOS for securing loans, a failure to pay TCSOS invoices, and for a failure to make California State Teachers Retirement (STRS) contributions — would have been just, and legal cause to have their charter revoked.

In order to meet the obligations prescribed in the MOU, Bulkin said, the school must implement an “intensive improvement plan.”

“At the end of the day the data needs to show that it translated into what they are doing,” she said. Referring to school directors as “passionate” about their educational goals and school mandate, she noted, “the data still has to bear the same passionate results.”

Academics

Foothill Leadership Academy, nestled in a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood on Susan Way in Sonora, houses 10 rooms, six full-time credentialed teachers, a physical education teacher, six aides, a reading interventionist, and 143 K-8 students.

The school administration is headed by married founders Emily McVey, Director of Development and Community Outreach, and Ian McVey, School Director.

They said the school adhered to state-mandated curriculum and standards while also promoting individual creativity, community collaboration, and, as their name suggests, leadership.

“Twenty-first century learning” was just “a piece of it,” they said.

Ian McVey said the school teaches intervention tactics for students with specific social needs to track their “growth over time,” as well as “life skills that will help them to be productive.”

“Since you don’t know what’s going to happen, you just have to produce good humans,” Emily McVey added.

Bulkin said academic performance of Tuolumne County public schools, quantified by the state-administered Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test on English/language arts and math, is “the single most powerful indicator not to renew or to revoke.”

In their charter petition, Foothill Leadership Academy promised that school performance would be at or above average with the other schools in the county.

According to 2016-17 SBAC data for Tuolumne County K-8 schools, they have not done so countywide, 53 percent of students fall short of the meeting the standard in english/language arts, and in math, 68 percent fall below the standard.

At Foothill Leadership Academy, 66 percent fall below the standard in english/language arts and 83 percent fall below the standard in math.

TCSOS Associate Superintendent Cathy Parker said the most recent statistics of Foothill Leadership Academy’s academic performance didn’t function as a “gotcha moment” to punish the school, but rather posed an opportunity for adaptation and reform.

“I think they need support with providing a curriculum that is robust and is aligned to state standards because the state standard and the assessment that they use is a very rigorous and an excellent system,” she said.

The McVeys emphasized additional resources, the Measures of Academic Progress scores (MAPS) and California Dashboard data, as better indicators of student development and progression over time.

The MAPS scores were commonly used by home schools and charter schools, Parker said, and added that the school “needed to move away from it” to enforce a more rigorous system.

The California School Dashboard indicated some improvement at Foothill Leadership Academy, with a slight increase in english/language arts scores in fall 2017 from the end of the previous school year.

In the spring 2017 data (the conclusion of the 2016-17 school year), Foothill Leadership Academy was shown to have declined in their english/language arts and math scores. The school received an improved color-coded rating in fall 2017 for the english/language arts increase and for minimizing the decrease in math.

New education data for Foothill Leadership Academy will be available in the fall of 2018, once the school has again participated in the SBAC test and their scores are computed by the state.

Finances

Lisa Rico was hired as TCSOS Assistant Superintendent of Business Services in September 2016 and subsequently discovered a handful of payments owed by Foothill Leadership Academy to the county for supervisorial “oversight fees.”

The payments are encoded in the MOU as no more than 1 percent of the charter school’s revenue, which is defined by the state funding for the school and excludes fundraising, private donations, and other public grants.

On Feb. 27, 2017, Foothill Leadership Academy was billed nearly $22,000 in oversight fees for the 2014-15 school year, the 2015-16 school year, and first two quarters of the 2016-17 school year.

By Oct. 10, 2017, Foothill Leadership Academy was issued a notice of past due invoices by the TCSOS totaling $42,308.08, which additionally included the last two quarters of the 2016-17 oversight frees, and more than $15,000 in special-education bill back fees.

The McVeys contended that the total bill, levied on the school over a six-month period in 2017, was at least partly responsible for their financial problems.

“I wouldn’t say it is one hundred percent responsible,” said Emily McVey. “It was mostly responsible but the nail on the coffin was providing for the retirement program that we didn’t budget for.”

Following the comprehensive TCSOS September 2017 oversight review of Foothill Leadership Academy, the county discovered that the school was not paying into the California State Teachers Retirement System (STRS), as was required by the MOU.

The school had previously provided a 403b retirement plan, social security and unemployment, but had opted to not pay into STRS to save on expenses.

“We saw that the rates were going up and so we didn’t think it was a good decision,” Emily McVey said.

The county mandated that they immediately comply and refused to alter the MOU, she said, and they began paying into STRS in January.

The combination of all these bills had contributed to the February checking account that dipped to a balance of (negative) - $683.10, she said.

Foothill Leadership Academy is at the “risk of insolvency,” Bulkin said.

“We feel that way today. That hasn’t changed.”

And though they were billed in a lump sum for the oversight fees, Bulkin said that because those payments were prescribed in the MOU, the school should have been prepared to pay them at any time.

“They didn’t have the money,” she said. “It wasn’t a surprise amount. It was a known amount.”

The school’s educational and community service goals were dwarfed by the financial obligations to keep the school solvent, Ian Morcott, Tuolumne County Board of Education trustee, indicated at a county board meeting on March 12.

It doesn’t matter “if you can’t pay your bills. Great intentions are plentiful,” he said.

The school was issued a notice of noncompliance with the MOU on Jan. 8 for two loans of $10,000 each that they received from the school’s parent teacher organization. Bulkin and Rico speculated that the loans may have been secured to assist with payments on the $42,308.08 bill.

The McVeys said that the bill and the STRS payments through the end of the current school year had been paid.

In addition to February’s negative fund balance, the county officials noted that the school owed $6,171 in vendors fees from February that would likely have to be paid in March.

The school has also committed to maintaining a three percent reserve for economic uncertainty in their MOU, or $33,325, but their average account balance in the past 11 months has fallen short at $18,858.

Additionally, the school had $3,516 cash on hand at the end of the year, according to their 2016-17 financial audit.

“That in of itself to me is concerning,” Rico said. “It doesn’t reflect enough of an ending fund balance to meet any potential obligations.”

In a presentation to the board on March 12, the McVeys acknowledged that they had taken a pay cut in order to meet their financial obligations and projected an end-of-the-year budget surplus of $124,095.

On Friday, Foothill Leadership Academy was notified by TCSOS that they must submit a fiscal recovery plan by June 1. The county will enter into agreement with the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) to determine if the charter school can meet its fiscal requirements through the 2019-20 school year.

Renewal of the
charter on appeal

Foothill Leadership Academy is in its fourth year of a five-year charter, which expires on June 30, 2019. The school has the opportunity to submit a petition to the county education board to renew the charter after Aug. 1. The McVeys said they plan on submitting their petition for renewal in September.

“I think the county leadership recognizes the need for choice in the community,” Ian McVey said. “We see this as an opportunity for the education options to grow.”

Five students are set to graduate from the school at the conclusion of the year, and the school has conducted a lottery to fill those spots among 42 applicants, he said.

Foothill Leadership Academy was approved in September 2013 by the county board of education as a five-year charter, on appeal from the Soulsbyville School District, which had originally rejected their charter petition.

Their facility is located within the Curtis Creek School District. California Education Code allows for a charter to establish one site outside the geographic boundaries of its sponsoring local education agency.

The school district pays in-lieu taxes to Foothill Leadership Academy for any students that reside in their district that attend the charter school.

The school is not designated as a countywide benefit charter, or a school that is directly approved by the Tuolumne County Board of Education for providing a service that the county education office cannot provide.

Foothill Leadership Academy submitted for a countywide benefit charter in August 2014 to expand their current facility, but was denied.

The 2017-18 budget information and academic data for the 2016-17 school year, collected in September 2018, will likely be considered as the basis for the board review and potential renewal or denial of the charter on appeal.

The board will have 60 days to consider the petition after it is submitted, and if denied, the owners will have the opportunity to appeal to the state board of education.

Bulkin said when the time came for Foothill Leadership Academy to submit their proposal for renewal, their academic data, financial information and noncompliance notices would be issued to the board as a statement of fact and not as a way to condemn them.

“We’re trying to help them,” Bulkin said. “I don’t want to be in a position where we’re trying to see them fail.”

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