Charter Charter Bang Bang

It takes a report card to keep the Valley's alternative education scene straight

Gaddie family members eventually became involved in four charter schools. Listings of board members and staff members often read like a family tree, with not only the Gaddie parents and siblings but their spouses hired to help run, teach and even clean the schools.

Touted as a way to provide private-school-style education for free, charters have more freedom in hiring teachers and developing curricula. But they must adhere to certain financial and testing requirements, like all Arizona public schools.

They may be chartered by the state Board of Education, the state Charter School Board or individual school districts. Arizona's charter school laws, considered the most liberal in the country, have resulted in a proliferation of schools, with nearly 350 school sites approved for about 180 operators.

While some school districts have sponsored charter schools in their areas, a few have decided to go into the long-distance charter school business. Districts found they could make extra money by approving out-of-town charters, either charging a per-charter fee or a cut of the per-capita fee the state doles out to its charter schools. The problem, as the Window Rock School District on the Navajo reservation found out, was that overseeing charters from a great distance was tough. And risky.

Window Rock revoked the charter for Reed Gaddie's Arizona Career and Technology High School in Mesa after that school was deluged with accusations of shoddy management and operations. The district divested itself of all its other charters, including Noah Webster Basic School, whose charter is now sponsored by the Snow Flake Unified School District. Snow Flake's two school districts, Higley Elementary and Peach Springs Unified, have stepped in as the largest players in the out-of-town charter sponsoring game.

Burke Basic School was the first charter sponsored by Peach Springs in April. Since then, the district has sponsored 13 more charter schools around Arizona, charging a percentage of the roughly $4,000 per student allocation that charter schools receive from state coffers. Superintendent Parker says he doesn't foresee running into trouble tracking these schools.

"I don't think it's too difficult, with the proper personnel in the proper positions and the proper kind of expertise," Parker says. Window Rock ran into difficulties because it was so remote compared to the locations of its schools, he explains. "We're more centrally located."

Actually, Peach Springs, which serves a few hundred students in grades K-12, is on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, 55 miles east of Kingman, in the northeastern corner of Mohave County. And the schools it sponsors are sprinkled from Tucson to Ganado, with seven in the Phoenix area.

Despite Parker's assurances that the tiny district can handle the oversight of 14 schools authorized to teach more than 2,200 kids, state officials are not so confident.

Laura Penny of the Arizona Department of Education says the state Board of Education found Peach Springs in noncompliance with financial reporting requirements, and on May 17 voted to withhold state funds from the district. Money -- including the district's share that goes to the charter schools -- is continuing to flow while the case is on appeal in Mohave County Superior Court.

But Penny wonders whether operators of charter schools sponsored by Peach Springs realize what could happen. Eleven of those charters were issued in June, just weeks after the vote to withhold the district's funds.

"I'm not sure whether the charter schools understand that if Peach Springs is ultimately unsuccessful [in court], we stop paying them all money. That leaves the charter schools high and dry as well," she says. "I'm not sure they are aware of the risk."

Penny says the department tried unsuccessfully to get legislation passed this year preventing any school district out of compliance with financial reporting requirements from sponsoring any charter schools.

"If they can't keep their own money in line, why should we give them more?" she asks.

In Peach Springs, Parker downplays the ongoing dispute with the state board. "I wouldn't classify it as trouble," he says. "We've had some auditing difficulties, but a lot of that's old stuff."

Penny says many of the problems arose out of old audits, but the district has failed to correct things and the case has dragged on for years.

Glen Gaddie says he's not worried about Peach Springs' ability to keep funneling state money to his school. He admits he doesn't know all the specifics of the case, but he has spoken with those who do, including superintendent Parker, the district's lawyer and officials at Arizona Benefit Solution, Inc., the Cottonwood firm that helps match charter schools with sponsors and handles finances for many of them, including Burke.

"To me, it's a non-issue," Gaddie says. He points out that the Uniform System of Financial Records, with which schools must comply, is an incredibly complex set of rules. Noncompliance letters are issued "right and left," he says, yet the state has never shut down a district. While he is confident that Peach Springs will get everything cleared up, he says if for some reason things don't work out, "I'll find another district."

For now, Gaddie is more concerned with getting the school going. He's excited about bringing hundreds more children into the fold of an educational system he believes in. This school, like Noah Webster, offers an all-day kindergarten, which he says is effective because children are most ready to learn at the age of 5.

"My little kids in kindergarten, they'll be reading short-vowel readers by December, and by the end of the year, they'll be reading the McGuffey primer," he says.

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