August 12, 2010 Over the past few years, charter schools across the state have faced difficulty when seeking initial authorization or renewal of their charters. CCSA has seen charter schools, even those with strong track records and seemingly good relationships with their authorizers, struggle through renewal. In many cases this struggle is caused by what CCSA has deemed authorizer "over regulation." Over regulation is the increasingly common practice amongst some authorizers to impose requirements upon charters that exceed the law and restrict a school's flexibility to best meet the needs of students. Long Valley Charter School (LVCS) in Lassen County was poised to be another casualty of a difficult renewal process, until persistence, stakeholder support, and access to CCSA resources saved the day.
LVCS was the first charter approved in Lassen County 10 years ago, and has met all of its financial requirements each year of its operation. In addition to a site-based K-8 program that serves a rural population, the school also offers a K-12 independent study program. LVCS has made Adequate Yearly Progress every year since 2003, and the school has had the highest Academic Performance Index (API) score in the Fort Sage Unified School District for the last seven years. In fact, LVCS posted a 36-point jump between 2008 and 2009, to outscore the district's API by 187 points.
Given LVCS's preparation and undisputed academic success, it was surprising when the school's petition for renewal was denied in January 2010.
"We were blindsided," said Pam Auld, financial director of LVCS. "We were anticipating a non-eventful renewal."
In denying the petition, the district offered a number of "findings" that were not legally permissible reasons for denial. Nonetheless, the Lassen County Office of Education upheld the denial, causing LVCS to appeal to the State Board of Education.
"Long Valley understood that California's charter law was on their side. Neither district finances nor the district desire to start their own charter school are legitimate reasons to deny a charter renewal," said CCSA's Regional Director of Northeastern California Laura Kerr, who provided advice to the school throughout the process.
LCVS students, parents, and staff attended all of the board meetings and hearings, wearing matching shirts and speaking out in support of the school.
"We probably had 75 people show up at the County board meeting," explained Auld. "We also had good support when we went to the State Board. About 30 people went to that meeting, which wasn't easy since it was during July and many people are on vacation. All of them said really positive things about our program."
Demonstrating that support is a key strategy for schools going through the renewal process. "We always encourage schools to proactively garner support for approval," said Rosaline Zylstra, CCSA's Director of Special Projects. "This means taking control of your renewal process, anticipating and responding to concerns before they are raised, and demonstrating undeniable support by your school community and those that are important to the authorizing board."
Long Valley also drew on the support of Regional Director Kerr and Colin Miller, CCSA's vice president of policy. Auld believes their support "made a big difference."
"Laura and Colin did research on our school and on the situation, and lent their support at the state hearings. I believe their saying the Association supported our school carried a lot of weight with the State."
California Department of Education staff recommended the charter be approved, the State Board of Education concurred. "This is a really great example of the State Board reaffirming that districts have to follow the rules when considering petitions," Kerr noted, "especially when a charter school is high performing. Long Valley's track record of success made it easy for the State Board because there was no question the school was doing good things for kids."
LCVS ultimately had a positive outcome with the renewal of their charter, but the process was very frustrating. "I wish we would have started the process earlier. We submitted our petition in December, but it would have been advisable to have begun that process in September," said Auld. "That's the best piece of advice I'd give to renewing schools."
CSSA encourages petitioning schools to avoid challenges such as those faced by Long Valley Charter School by submitting new or renewal petition documents early. If you are planning to petition in the 2010-2011 school year, aim to submit by September 15, if at all possible. Additionally, schools should draft solid petitions that align with the requirements and expectations of the state board so that they are poised for potential successful appeal.
Assisting quality charters through the renewal process continues to be a high priority for the Association, which offers a variety of resources to renewing schools, from online support (including free-to-member tools to help you easily display your data in a way that best demonstrates your success and garner support for approval) to strategy advice from regional directors located throughout the state.
"Renewing schools are not alone," concluded Zylstra, the Special Projects Director. "They are part of a network of other schools that have faced similar challenges, and CCSA is here to help. Members should stay in regular contact with their CCSA Regional Director regarding progress and challenges, and be sure to take advantage of other Association resources throughout the renewals process."