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April 20, 2014

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Schools will be funded based on Sept. 18 attendance

Beyond the Sun

As discontented parents at 100 Academy of Excellence talk of taking their children out of the charter school, the Clark County School District is wondering how many of them might end up in traditional public schools that serve West Las Vegas.

There are plenty of empty seats in those schools, and with each student comes thousands of dollars in state money.

And the countdown to payday is under way. School attendance is measured on the official “count day” — a week from today. Operators of both the charter school and the public schools want to have as many students as possible in their chairs that day, in order to fund their programs, staffs and services. Each student brings more than $5,000 from the state, thank you very much.

What the School District does not want is an influx of students from the academy after the official count day — when it has to take the students but gets none of the state funding to help pay for their education. The district has been stung by such situations in the past. Conversely, if students leave 100 Academy of Excellence after the count day, the charter school still gets to keep the state money that each student triggered.

Most of the elementary schools serving West Las Vegas each have 50 to 200 empty seats, in part because families are moving to outlying areas and high-density apartment complexes have been torn down and replaced with senior housing.

But another development has taken its toll on enrollment at the traditional elementary schools: the creation of three charter schools nearby. Agassi Prep has waiting lists for its elementary, middle and high school programs, and chooses its students by lottery. Rainbow Dreams Academy, serving grades K-4, had only a few spots left in the fourth grade. And as of this week 100 Academy was fighting to keep the 500 or so K-8 students it has.

The district is considering developing new initiatives — such as gifted and talented programs or dual-language instruction — to draw in students from elsewhere and boost diversity at the West Las Vegas campuses.

It’s in that context that district officials are watching the upheaval at 100 Academy from a distance. State law prohibits local districts from interfering in the daily operations of the charter schools they sponsor.

“No one wants to see 100 Academy fail,” said one district administrator, who asked not to be identified. “Their kids are our kids.”

Yet, the relationship between Clark County School District and the 100 Academy of Excellence has not always been smooth, largely because of the involvement of Imagine Schools Inc., the Virginia-based company that operates 100 Academy of Excellence.

For starters, the School Board didn’t like that an out-of-state company was the driving force behind the school’s creation in 2006. The board approved it nonetheless.

District officials also worried that 100 Academy’s principal was an Imagine Schools employee who did not report to the school’s local governing body. State law doesn’t specifically prohibit such arrangements.

The involvement of 100 Black Men of Las Vegas, a nonprofit community organization, turned the tide in the company’s favor. The group’s members continue to serve as mentors at the school, although some parents say they’ve seen a less-active presence.

Nevada doesn’t allow for-profit charter schools, but a charter campus organized by local parents may hire an “educational management organization” to handle a range of services. Imagine Schools provides that at two Clark County campuses — 100 Academy and Imagine School in the Valle — with facilities, textbooks and staff.

About 40 percent of the academy’s per-pupil funding pays the rent for its facilities — which are owned by an affiliate of Imagine Schools.

By comparison, Innovations International Charter School, which is sponsored by the School Board, spends 14 percent of its per-pupil funding on rent for its facility.

Imagine is unapologetic about its business model, which includes generating real estate income from the education side of its business.

“It’s our school as much as anyone else’s school,” Imagine Schools Inc. CEO Dennis Bakke said in a June 2008 interview with the Sun. “We’ve made it very clear that if you don’t trust us, don’t start with us, because we are there forever. It’s very difficult to unwind this marriage, and it was meant to be that way.”

Imagine Schools Inc. operates 74 schools in 12 states. Academic performance varies from campus to campus, with strong gains at some, little movement at others. The 100 Academy did not make adequate academic progress on standardized tests for the 2008-09 academic year. Its middle school program is on the state’s watch list, and the elementary school is identified as “needs improvement,” for two consecutive years of low scores.

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