School Daze

Legal issues and other questions are swirling around a proposed Deer Valley charter high school that last year was touted as a national model and a creative way for the school district to quickly solve overcrowding problems.

Envisioned as a new stand-alone high school with an emphasis on technology, the school was expected to attract 450 freshmen and sophomores when it opens this fall. But when classes start on August 13, only about 75 kids (freshmen through seniors) may show up.

And classes -- evening courses likely to cover a couple of core topics -- will be held in leased space at Barry Goldwater High School.

So much for alleviating overcrowding.

Now, angry parents are citing charter school mismanagement as a key reason for a possible recall of school board members who are also serving as charter high school officials. But school officials say the low student interest level is normal for a start-up school.

Deer Valley Superintendent Bill Hill, whose 22 percent raise in June added fuel to the recall talk, is also chief executive officer of the corporation running the charter high school. He says he's convinced that further marketing efforts will bring more students as the year goes by.

Tim Tait, spokesman for the fast-growing north Phoenix district, admits officials underestimated the difficulties in the chartering process. But, he says, because the district's high schools far exceed their capacities, something had to be done. "We can't just sit by and let the classrooms fill up," he says.

Built for 1,800 students each, one Deer Valley high school has about 2,000 kids attending and the other two are approaching enrollments of 3,000 each. Another regular district high school won't open until 2002.

Deer Valley wanted to use Arizona's changing education laws to the district's advantage to craft a plan that would get a school built quickly while maximizing the per pupil funds (around $4,500) that the state pays charter schools.

Last summer, the five members of the district school board formed a nonprofit corporation, with themselves as directors.

School board president David Cantelme applied for the charter from the State Board for Charter Schools, a method that would result in more money for the new school than alternative charter-sponsoring methods -- through the state Board of Education or the district itself.

The novel arrangement -- which involves the new school contracting for services from the district -- was believed to be the first of its kind not only in the state but nationally. But it backfired when the charter school organization realized it couldn't use any of the district's resources as collateral for loans to buy property or build a school.

As a result, plans for the charter school were ever-changing. Deadlines for site selection as well as registration got pushed back again and again. Confusion reigned at charter school board meetings as late as last month, when board members were unsure of the school's name, class offerings, staffing needs, busing plans, specifics of the approximate $421,000 budget and if or when the school would receive $450,000 in federal stimulus money.

"How much confidence can parents and students have in a school that can't make up its mind what it wants to be?" asked Alan Richardson, a district parent involved with the recall movement.

And there are other problems:

• Conflict of interest issues. The charter school directors, who in this case are also Deer Valley school board members, are unpaid and prohibited from benefiting from the sale of any of the school's property. But can they make decisions (such as taking away money and students) that would adversely effect the Deer Valley Unified School District, which they also oversee?

State Solicitor General Scott Bales, in an informal letter to the charter school's attorney, says maybe not. In fact, he wrote, the board members may have to recuse themselves from such decisions and may be barred from holding two incompatible public offices. After the charter school's attorney recommended the two boards not be identical (to protect the district from being held accountable for actions of the charter board) two at-large directors were added to the charter board in December.

Richardson, a corporate manager, knows business deals are sometimes secured with a handshake. "But what they did was shake hands with themselves and go off and do business," he says.

• Use of district resources. In more than a year of planning, the charter corporation used Deer Valley personnel, supplies and meeting space without reimbursement to the district. Letters to parents and students about the charter school went out on district letterhead, using district mailing lists. Promotional pamphlets and registration materials were available at district school offices. And teachers used class time the last week of February to survey kids in grades 8 through 11 to measure interest in the new school. (Officials spun the results to show a positive response, but the poll showed 83 percent of students were not interested in attending the school.)

School officials make no apologies for early research efforts and say while lines between the charter school and the district sometimes appear blurred, everything is being carefully tracked. The district will be paid back incrementally over the first year of the charter school's operation, they say.

But parents say this is akin to the money-strapped district floating a loan to a private corporation with no assets, no track record and no clients. They also suspect the district is underestimating its costs. And authorities have said that legally, the charter may not have to pay the district back dollar for dollar.

• Legal questions about the charter school's status as a public agency. Only public agencies can enter into an intergovernmental agreement such as the one between Deer Valley Charter Schools Inc. and the Deer Valley Unified School District. While there is no dispute that the charter school board qualifies as a public "body" subject to open meeting laws, etc., there has been no definitive ruling on whether it can be considered a public "agency" able to sign such agreements.

Again, district officials are confident Arizona laws on are their side. But that exact question, whether a charter school may enter into an intergovernmental agreement, is one of the issues being studied in a probe of the Scottsdale Unified School District and its relationship with a charter school.

George Graham of the state Auditor General's Office says that inquiry won't be finished for another month, then will be forwarded to the Attorney General's Office.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin