June 27, 2012: Looking for a scary story to tell around the campfire this summer? Look no further than some of the challenges that charter schools have faced around renewals over the last year. Don't get trapped in an ugly renewal game! CCSA is offering a series of renewal webinars kicking off June 14. Read on for some stories from other charters and for tips for a successful renewal.
Plan for the best...but prepare for the worst. If you are planning to petition in the '12-'13 school year, aim to submit your renewal by September 15, if at all possible. A bump in the road becomes an insurmountable mountain if you get denied by your local authorizer and don't have enough time to go through the appeals process. Many charter operators across the state have dealt with unexpected issues and delays that pushed back their renewal date to within throwing distance of their charter expiration.
Keep an open line of communications with your authorizer and be in touch early in the process about any changes to your petition.
"We have a fantastic relationship with our district, Orange Unified, and great community support," said John Besta, Principal, Business and Operations, at El Rancho Charter School, a conversion charter school. However, a minor change to their petition resulted in a misunderstanding that set the renewal process back months.
It all started when a school administrator from El Rancho attended a workshop on suspension and expulsion that presented some good recommended language for a school policy. They decided to add it to the school's petition. The new language filled about five pages, which were added to their original petition, which had only numbered about 20 pages.
When the district received it and saw five new pages of legalese, they decided they'd better run it by their attorneys, who didn't just review the new five pages, but the entire document, flagging 34 areas to which they had an objection--none of which were in the new section! El Rancho had submitted the petition around Thanksgiving, but the district didn't get the feedback to them until March. They sat down with the district superintendent and went through the petition point by point and were ultimately able to come to agreement.
"If I were to do it again, I would probably have sat down with the district at the time of submission and pointed these pages out to them and made clear that this was the only substantial change. We caused ourselves so much work," said Besta.
Make no assumptions - even if you are a dependent charter or have a strong relationship with your district. Cultivate community support.
Sierra Montessori Academy (SMA) is a small, semi-autonomous charter school authorized by the Nevada County Office of Education. Going into renewal the school leaders were confident about their academic performance, but anticipated that there would be questions about their financial stability because of their size.
"We may only serve about 100 students, but our API has been over 800 for the past five years," said Henry Bietz, the SMA Executive Director.
In order to bring their fiscal house in order, they recently moved from a private facility to a lower-cost Prop. 39 facility and carefully calculated their budget and cash flow for the next five years.
Since they use their county office of education for business services, Bietz was initially very confident that SMA would be able to work something out with the county superintendent. However, 30 minutes before the board was set to hear the charter renewal, Bietz was informed that staff would be recommending non-renewal.
Caught off guard, Bietz asked for the vote to be postponed and immediately went to work cultivating "yes" votes amongst the county board members. One tactic was to reach out to an influential State Senator and Assemblymember to ask for their support.
His quick work was a success. When the school finally went up for a vote, they received a full five-year renewal. Reflecting on the renewal roller coaster, Bietz said, "Never assume that you have their support!"
Prepare well for your public presentation.
Lifeline Charter School is located in Compton Unified School District, which has historically not been friendly to charter schools. Lifeline was initially approved by the State Board of Education (SBE) after being denied by Compton. When they went up for renewal, representatives from Compton Unified presented at the SBE's public meeting, criticizing the school and pushing for its non-renewal.
Lifeline made its own 10-minute presentation featuring school administrators and students and sharing what the school offers in the community.
"It was really well put together," said Michelle Low, Director of Regulatory Affairs for CCSA. "They had the right balance between presenting community voices and meaningfully addressing the concerns raised by California Department of Education staff."
Lifeline had students share their positive stories about what the school had done for them. Low said it is powerful to include students, but that schools should be very thoughtful about it because some board members get concerned about a lot of students missing out on instructional time. (In this case, the meeting was during spring break, so students didn't have to miss any school.)
Count Your Votes!
It's important to have open lines of communication with district staff, but ultimately, your school's future will be decided by a vote of the board of education.
When Academy for Civic & Entrepreneurial Leadership (ACEL) charter went up for their hearing in front of the Fresno Unified School District Board, staff recommended non-renewal. Fortunately, the school had also been in touch directly with board members, addressing the staff concerns. The vote ultimately came down to a 3-3 tie with one board member abstaining. Education law requires that chartering school districts make a decision within 60 days of receiving a charter petition or the petition is automatically renewed. The deadline for ACEL had passed and because the tie vote equated to no board action, ACEL's charter was renewed automatically.
This was extremely fortunate because by the time their charter went up for a vote, there wasn't enough time left to appeal the decision to the county if the Fresno Unified board hadn't renewed the school. Which is all the more reason to...
CCSA wants to give you the support you need to be prepared for a successful renewal. We are offering a series of webinars kicking off June 14 with the critical information you need to be successful in your renewal. Sign up for the webinars and use this Renewal Readiness Checklist to make sure you're prepared.
You might also wish to check out CCSA's online Renewal Resources, which have recently been refreshed. Besides technical support, we are happy to work with you on your advocacy strategy and community outreach.