Teacher Dearest

The free market alone was supposed to control charter schools, but the state is stepping in to clean up Gail Battistella's mess at Dragonfleye Charter School

"In this way they control our young and so control our nation," she wrote. Later in the letter she continues, "I have been raped and violated before the eyes of the public in broad daylight, not once but twice. Because no evidence could be found against me, a character assassination was launched to drive me out and in the process children became the innocent victims of a grand larceny. Although we put up a valiant fight, although we were right, although the law was on our side and although the majority should have ruled, we were defeated. Evil has triumphed, injustice is victorious."

Battistella's current lawyer, Kevin Ahern, points out that people either love or hate Gail Battistella, without any in between, and there was a passionate corps of parents who felt she had been wronged by the school district.

"It seemed perfectly reasonable that these school board members just didn't understand what was happening," says Lon Brouse, one of Battistella's early fans. Brouse is a chiropractor and a chemist, and he had visited Battistella's lab. "Here appeared to be learning, here appeared to be children doing things in a way that I'd been trying for 25 years to get people involved and educated in science."

Pam Miller was the only PV board member who had voted in favor of Battistella; her husband Greg became Battistella's most ardent supporter. Miller now claims that he suggested that Battistella incorporate and petition for nonprofit status with the IRS to protect herself legally in the future. That suggestion would come back to haunt him later.

Miller and Brouse put their heads together and talked Battistella into starting a charter school.

Greg Miller is a portly and portentous man. He exudes an air of patience and reflection, and he speaks with the authority of a self-appointed jack-of-all-trades. Although his college degree is in political science, he's spent a career as an environmental engineer. But he had long been a booster parent, involved in many aspects of his kids' education; his wife sits on the school board and he has chaired advisory committees on curriculum for the PV district. And over the course of that involvement, they'd both known Battistella for years.

Greg Miller "saw the lab as something that would work based on my snapshot view, based on my wanting to see something like this work."

And if he suspected that Battistella might be difficult to work with, he liked the potential the lab seemed to hold. Battistella came up with the name "Dragonfleye": A dragonfly views the world with a multifaceted perspective, the argument went; the creative spelling was to emphasize the word "eye."

The charter proposal they drew up envisioned a building of classrooms set in concentric circles around the lab. And the science classes they'd teach there would prepare students for corporate life afterward. Corporations would be happy to donate large sums of money. In short, the school would thrive in a scientific corporate utopia.

As for their own incorporation, the founders might have paid closer attention.

The organizational board for the school comprised Battistella, Brouse, Greg Miller and five others. All of their signatures appear on the title page of the charter-school incorporation proposal. Brouse and Miller mistakenly assumed that the organizational board would supersede the board of Dragonfleye Science, Inc., the entity that grew out of the Echo Mountain science lab, and that the paperwork down at the Corporation Commission would be changed to reflect the new board. In fact, there were only three names on the incorporation papers: Battistella's, and those of Jan Bingham (now Bingham Meyers) and Mike Kiedrowski, two of her closest supporters; the former was a parent she had met in the Paradise Valley schools and the latter was a veterinarian who looked after the health of her lab animals.

"There were many more critical things going on at the time," says Brouse of the oversight. "We all trusted each other."

Miller was named CEO of the school's board. Board members Brouse and Battistella were to be the on-site administrators, he as principal, she as lab director. The two positions were to be parallel in responsibility and both would report to the board.

Miller found a vacant building on North 19th Avenue that once housed Western International University, and then the fledgling educators made some major miscalculations on how much it would cost to whip it into shape. They'd budgeted $50,000; in fact, they couldn't get a contractor to put in a bid, and the resultant work cost closer to $200,000 out of their first checks from the state Department of Education.

Originally, they'd enrolled 250 students and expected, given attrition and absenteeism, that when the state made its student count--which it uses to calculate the allocation of funds--that there would be at least 200.

But construction took longer than expected and the school opened three weeks late. Students enrolled elsewhere, and the number of students the state counted was set closer to 150.

The school had gotten a large check in July, based on the earlier 200-student estimate, and, to everyone's dismay, the adjustment had to be taken out of the October check. Instead of receiving $75,000, Miller says, the school got $7,500.

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