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December 21, 2014

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Disputed charter school can’t be barred

Nevada Education Department officials do not want an out-of-state company opening a second charter school in the Las Vegas Valley this fall, but they can’t prevent it.

Officials say they cannot bar the school because of state regulations the department wants to change.

At issue is Imagine School in the Valle, which is set to open in September in temporary digs at the Durango Hills Community Center YMCA, on Durango Drive at Alexander Road. Imagine Schools Inc., a Virginia-based company, operates 51 campuses in 11 states, including the 100 Academy of Excellence in North Las Vegas.

In the past few months, state education officials have become increasingly concerned about Imagine Schools’ management of the North Las Vegas campus, citing a lack of qualified teachers, poor student performance and shoddy bookkeeping.

Charter schools receive the same per-pupil state funding as traditional public campuses, and officials say there have been enough problems at 100 Academy to convince them that spending taxpayer money on another Imagine school is a bad idea.

But in October 2006, when 100 Academy was just a month old, the state Education Board approved sponsorship of Imagine School in the Valle. So far, no one’s found an escape hatch that would allow the state to cancel the sponsorship. Education officials say the situation highlights yet another problem with the way the charter school approval process works.

“There are so many holes in the system to be patched,” said State Board of Education member Cindy Reid, chairwoman of the charter schools subcommittee. “Right now, it seems we are locked into sponsorship, despite new information that’s come to us after the fact.”

Lawmakers need to make changes in the next legislative session, Reid said, including tightening requirements and changing toothless “guidelines” into laws.

Reid said she is encouraged by recent public focus on Nevada charter school laws, spurred when the state board imposed a moratorium on reviewing new applications. Following the lead of Washoe and Clark county school districts, the state board approved the moratorium in November, citing the drain on resources and lack of staff to properly review applications and monitor the schools that win sponsorship.

“The dilemma is really in the regulatory process,” said Edward Goldman, an associate superintendent of the Clark County School District whose office oversees Clark County’s eight charter schools. “The law is unclear and wide open.”

Under the current system, the State Education Board can, however, reject charter school applications if it has sufficient reason to do so, and Imagine Schools has applications pending to open two additional campuses in the Las Vegas Valley.

The Nevada Education Department is recommending rejection of both applications, citing “serious deficiencies,” including Imagine’s shaky track record both locally and in other states. The charter schools subcommittee meets today, with a full board vote set for Saturday.

In October, the Clark County School Board considered revoking 100 Academy’s charter, but backed off when Imagine Schools forgave $285,000 in debt the school owed for its management. School Board members said they weren’t pleased that 100 Academy was spending 25 percent of its per-pupil funding — $1.2 million — on rent. The landlord is School House Finance LLC, an affiliate of Imagine Schools. Board members also wanted 100 Academy’s principal to report to the governing body, rather than be an Imagine Schools employee.

But because state law doesn’t specifically prohibit such arrangements, trustees said they couldn’t use the issues as grounds for revoking a school’s charter.

Vickie Frazier-Williams, Imagine’s vice president for the Nevada region, said she was looking forward to addressing each of the Education Department’s concerns at today’s meeting.

“It’s pretty easy to find negative stuff if that’s what you’re looking for,” Frazier-Williams said. “The record will be clear, if someone takes the time to look, that we have invested in this community in many ways.”

Frazier-Williams said Imagine’s own school assessments show 100 Academy’s students have made significant academic gains, including many students who tested below grade level when they arrived last year. At the same time, she acknowledged that there have been struggles, teacher turnover and compliance issues.

“Did we know every single thing and all the nuances the moment we got here? No,” Frazier-Williams said. “But we didn’t think we would have just one year to learn it, either.”

Charter schools are given more leeway with instructional methods and staffing but must still meet many of the same state requirements for student achievement, curriculum and financial reporting as traditional public schools.

While Nevada doesn’t allow for-profit charter schools, a campus may hire what’s known as an “educational management organization” to provide services. But state education officials say Imagine Schools goes too far, removing the authority of the governing body that is supposed to be ultimately responsible for daily operations.

The 100 Academy, Imagine School of the Valle and the two pending applications are all based on the same operational model, which calls for near-total reliance on Imagine Schools Inc. for everything from facilities to textbooks to teachers.

And while the Education Department has been busy building a case against future sponsorship of charters associated with the Virginia company, Imagine School in the Valle is moving ahead. Fifty students have enrolled so far, and a marketing campaign kicks off next week, Frazier-Williams said.

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