The Tuolumne County Board of Education granted a conditional charter to the Pinecrest Expedition Academy in a 4-3 vote Monday night on the condition that the charter school rectify 11 educational and regulatory deficiencies in their petition within 60 days.

The academy must rely less on fundraising, address the role of the Pinecrest School Club and address deficiencies in staffing. The board also noted that a lease for a school building had not been worked out.

Lead charter petitioner Heidi Lupo said she believes the conditions can be overcome.

“This is a major step for education in the Pinecrest community, and we are thrilled to work with the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools staff,” she said after the meeting.

More than a dozen parents and community members said their dedication to school choice would surmount the obstacles ahead.

Jillian Rohr, the mother of two boys in the Long Barn area, said the supporters loved “our kids so much” that they chose to spend their free time “sitting in this room fighting for children.”

“We have a community, we have friends. My neighborhood is Long Barn area, my neighborhood is the Pinecrest area,” she said.

If the charter is officially approved, it will be in effect from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2022.

Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin said after the meeting that her staff would amend the original charter petition and that the charter school administration would have to agree to the new expectations and remove any of the risks associated with the deficiencies.

During the meeting, Bulkin described the charter school’s budgetary outlook and the role of the Pinecrest School Club as a school fundraiser and in the school’s governance as “insurmountable concerns.”

According to the conditional approval resolution, the charter will not go into effect until Bulkin determines that all the conditions are met.

Pinecrest School Club

The role of the Pinecrest School Club, once a booster club for the former Pinecrest Elementary School, has been contentious since the Twain Harte School District denied the school’s charter petition on April 25, setting up Monday’s appeal hearing by the county board.

Pinecrest Elementary closed in June 2012 and the club is now a nonprofit organization that supports educational programs in the Pinecrest area.

Twain Harte Superintendent Rick Hennes has said more than $30,000 raised by the Pinecrest School Club between the Pinecrest Elementary School closure through 2018 belongs to the Twain Harte School district.

The original Pinecrest Elementary School, a K-8 school, had 39 students, 20 of whom were from outside the district. Hennes said four students enrolled at Twain Harte Elementary School live in the Cold Springs and Pinecrest area. About 260 students are enrolled in the Twain Harte School District.

Hennes has submitted more than 100 pages of correspondence, records and financial documents to the Tuolumne County Grand Jury and the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office and demanded an investigation into the group’s finances.

At the meeting on Monday, Hennes said a cease-and-desist order would be issued if the charter petition was approved. He said the district would lose $250,000 from in-lieu taxes if the charter is approved.

Hennes declined to comment at the end of the meeting, but many members of the Twain Harte School District board of trustees and elementary school staff opposed the charter petition.

The potential litigation between the Pinecrest Expedition Academy and the Twain Harte School District was one of the reasons highlighted for denying the charter petition, since the county education office could be held liable as the oversight agency of the charter school.

Bulkin said the charter school would likely not be able to rely on, or include, any funds generated by the Pinecrest School Club if the funds were under dispute.

Anticipated charter school budget

Chief among Bulkin’s and the Tuolumne County Board of Education’s concerns was how the school expected to maintain an operational budget with about $250,000 from “other sources” besides revenue generated by in-lieu taxes and the Local Control Funding Formula.

Scott Holbrook, a lawyer with Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo in Sacramento hired by the county office to draft the resolutions to approve or deny the charter petition, said it would be “very difficult to open a charter school” with an expected enrollment of about 25 students.

The proposed budget and multi-year projection for the Pinecrest Expedition Academy displayed an “extraordinary reliance on fundraising,” the denial resolution said, and the cash-flow analysis provided in the petition appeared to be “incomplete and/or inadequate in light of the omissions in budget expenditures.”

Also, the petition did not appear to allocate funds for a special education teacher or other special education services, for substitute teachers, fees associated with retirement payments and bringing the proposed school facility up to code.

“Some of those deficiencies I think can be remedied, some of those I think would be very difficult,” Holbrook said.

One “huge discrepancy” that could impact the budget was related to the proposed school facility, the former Pinecrest Elementary School site sold as surplus property by the Twain Harte District to the Pinecrest Permittees Association in 2017.

The petition says the organization would lease the building to the charter school, but Holbrook said no rental fee had been negotiated and the building was not secured in lease agreement. In the denial recommendation, the county cited the expectation that rent be $1 per year and “$2 per square foot to be offset by in-kind donations,” but that does not include any specific square footage of the facility, how the funds will be secured, or if the Pinecrest Permittees Association had agreed to $1 per year.

The board of education vote

The discussion between the Board of Education focused on whether the charter school should be the stewards of public funds for student education if it could not realistically manage an operational budget.

Trustee Juliana Feriani acknowledged the passion of the charter school supporters, but questioned whether the money could be used for better purposes if the charter school failed.

“I look at a half a million dollar experiment, times three, as $1.5 million dollars,” she said. “I understand love of the community and then I look at the money.”

Trustee Chucker Twining, who presides over the Twain Harte and Long Barn area where the charter school would reside, responded to Feriani with a reference to Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific discoveries and suggested that a bold experiment could succeed.

“I think an experiment in a school in Pinecrest is a little more proven than… figuring out the atom,” he said. “It's an experiment that’s worked for 70 years.”

Pinecrest Elementary School was a part of the Twain Harte-Long Barn Union High School District, after it was acquired from the Columbia Elementary School District.

Twining said he graduated from Pinecrest Elementary School in eighth grade in 1962.

Twinning proposed the motion to grant the conditional charter petition, which passed with yes votes from trustees Ian Morcott, Nicholas Chernoff, Martha Golay, and Twining. Trustees Donald Rolle, Cyndi Simonson and Feriana voted no.
The yes votes from Morcott and Golay were stipulated on the premise of the 60-day conditional approval, with Golay referring to the vote as “a safety net for us.”

“If they are not compliant in 60 days we do not move ahead,” she said.

Will the charter succeed?

The county also identified academic and administrative discrepancies in the charter petition.
Academically, Pinecrest Expedition Academy was censured for 176 days of total instruction, without any documented account for inclement weather.

In the second year of enrollment the charter projected an enrollment of 40 students but one certificated staff member. The denial recommendation said it was unrealistic for a lead teacher to provide classroom support due to their personnel and administrative obligations.

The lack of credentialed teaching staff could jeopardize Local Control Funding Formula monies as well as the charter school’s ability to provide educational services in multi-grade classrooms with varying student needs, the denial recommendation noted.

Among the deficiencies were the lack of classified staff qualification requirements, certain health and safety regulations, and components related to dispute resolution procedures, closure protocols, administrative services and insurance liabilities.

But all the obstacles did not seem to discourage Lupo, who has led the campaign for the establishment of the charter school since the proposal was submitted to the Twain Harte School District Board of Trustees on Feb. 27, 2018.

“I know that this one is big, and I know that you've heard a lot of people in this room with a lot of passion toward this,” she said. “We want this opportunity for our kids and we want to make this happen.”

The charter petition can be appealed to the state board of education if it is subsequently denied by the county.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.