Las Vegas Sun

September 20, 2014

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Charter school vote exposes rift

THE DEFIANT BOARD:

Despite pressure from legislators, the state Board of Education voted in a moratorium on sponsorship of new charter schools. The board wants lawmakers to cover the costs if they want more charter schools.

THE LAWMAKERS' REBUKE:

In letters, legislators questioned whether the board has the legal right to bar applications for new charter schools and criticized the board for not specifying how much is spent now to oversee charter schools.

By voting Friday to temporarily halt sponsorship of new charter schools, the state Board of Education threw down the gauntlet to the Legislature.

The message was clear: If Nevada wants to encourage innovation in public education, it must be prepared to pay for it.

The vote came after the board received letters from several lawmakers reminding board members that the Nevada Education Department has a statutory obligation to review all applications for charter schools and urging members not to approve a moratorium.

"I am extremely disappointed that they did what they did," said state Sen. Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas.

This is the latest tussle between legislators who make the laws and the board charged with implementing them.

Cegavske is a member of the newly formed Nevada State Charter School Leadership Team, a bipartisan panel of lawmakers, charter school officials and community representatives. The team sent a letter to the board opposing the move.

The board members also received letters from Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, D-Carson City, and Sen. Maurice Washington, R-Sparks, reminding them of their statutory duties to charter school applicants and of the requirement that they provide written explanations of deficiencies in applications that are denied. Parnell wrote the letter on behalf of the Legislative Committee on Education, which she chairs.

Board members made their decision without asking for details on how much time and money the department spends to oversee charter schools, Cegavske said.

"How can you vote on something if you don't see how the money is being spent?" Cegavske said. "Quite frankly, I think they had it in their minds they wanted to do this and they went ahead and did it. Knee-jerk reactions are how we get ourselves into trouble."

In his letter Washington, chairman of the state Senate's Committee on Human Resources and Education, said the board's move was in conflict with recent legislative actions intended to increase opportunities for charter schools to flourish in Nevada, not wither.

"I believe these actions (by lawmakers) reflect an intent to promote the expansion of charter schools," Washington wrote. "The Legislature intends that quality charter schools are approved and operating ... and does not intend that all applications are summarily denied."

The lawmakers' missives did not sit well with some board members, including Vice President Marcia Washington. The letters intimated the state board did not have the right to make its own decisions and were a blatant attempt at bullying, she said.

The moratorium was approved 8-0 shortly before 10 p.m. Friday after nearly three hours of discussion and public testimony. Several charter school representatives spoke out against the move, while the state's teachers union gave its support.

According to the language of the moratorium, the Nevada Education Department won't consider new applications until it receives the "support" it needs, whether that comes from the full Legislature, the interim Education Committee or another "respected stakeholder." The moratorium excludes the nine applications now up for consideration by the Nevada Education Department.

Keith Rheault, Nevada's superintendent of public instruction, said there's no money in the budget to add staff and this fall Gov. Jim Gibbons asked him to trim $1.1 million in administrative costs for the biennium.

One full-time employee is now responsible for all the work involved in reviewing charter school applications. The state board sponsors five schools, and nine applications are pending.

At Friday's meeting, state board member Merv Iverson said it's impossible for the state to sponsor any new charter schools until there are enough staff members and resources to handle the workload. Those who disapprove of the moratorium "just don't get it," Iverson said. "They don't understand the dilemma that we face. The solution lies in the hands of other people. The blame lies with the people who will not give the department what they need."

Board members suggested a moratorium would give the Nevada Education Department time to conduct an in-depth study of student performance at existing charter schools, which has yet to take place.

The state board is not alone in wanting more information about charter school performance, oversight and operations.

Parnell said the Education Committee's February meeting will be devoted to those issues. It would help, she said, if the state board designated one of its members to serve as a liaison to the committee.

"A lot of this will come down to communications," Parnell said. "We need to be able to talk to one another and not have an adversarial situation."

State board members insisted they are strong supporters of the charter schools concept, but fear the lack of staff could lead to sponsorship of inferior programs. The repercussions when a charter school fails, as has happened several times in Nevada, can be costly. In addition to the loss of state funding, students are left without a school.

In October the Clark County School District announced its own moratorium, citing the expense and workload that comes with charter school sponsorship. The district sponsors eight schools, including the Las Vegas Charter School for the Deaf, which has yet to open.

A challenge to the state board's moratorium could be imminent.

Cegavske said she met Monday with staff at the Legislative Counsel Bureau and asked them to determine whether the move is legal. Also at issue: whether the vote constituted a violation of the state's open meeting law, as some observers are suggesting.

Moments before the vote was cast Friday, Ed Irvin, the deputy attorney general assigned to the department, cautioned the board that the agenda item wording for the moratorium may not have been specific enough to satisfy the requirements of the state's open meeting law.

Undeterred, the board approved the motion.

In an interview with the Sun on Monday, Rheault said he wouldn't be surprised if a complaint were lodged by a member of the public.

"There's a possibility," he said, "that it may not have been clear to people what the board intended on doing."

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