Tacoma School Board vents frustration over perceived charter school overload

The opening of three charter schools in Tacoma next fall could cost Tacoma Public Schools as much as $10 million once the charters reach full capacity by draining students and funds from the public school system, according to Tacoma School Board member Karen Vialle.

That figure, which emerged in a sometimes strained discussion Thursday night between the local school board and several members of the state charter school commission, was just one complaint school board members aired before several members of the state body.

Earlier this year, the commission approved seven of the state’s first publicly funded but independently run charter schools. Three of the seven – Summit: Olympus High School, Green Dot Charter Middle School and SOAR Academy –will be located in Tacoma. Others are in Seattle and South King County.

They plan to start teaching students in the fall of 2015. At full capacity, the three Tacoma charters would enroll a total of nearly 1,500 students. State funding for those students would follow the students to their new schools.

Vialle asked commission members if they understood the impact of three new schools opening in the city next year. She said the revenue loss could cost the district some teachers, which could produce larger class sizes in Tacoma Public Schools.

School board member Scott Heinze wanted to know if there is anything in the state charter school law that governs how charters should be distributed around the state.

Commissioner Steve Sundquist said he doesn’t believe the law speaks to charter location. What it does say, he noted, is that charter schools are aimed at some of the state’s most at-risk students, including students of color and those from low-income families.

Charters are designed to “provide those families a choice,” Sundquist said.

“They may find a better fit in one of these charter schools,” he said.

“If there are multiple applications in a single school district, there is nothing that says we can only authorize one,” added commission member Trish Millines Dziko. “We are not looking at their location. We are looking at their applications.”

Vialle suggested that it might be time to ask the Legislature to amend the charter law “so districts do not get overloaded with charters.”

Dziko said that feedback will be relayed to the full commission.

Heinze said he was frustrated that charter applicants cited Tacoma’s reputation for school innovation as one of the reasons to locate here. As proof that Tacoma schools are already offering families choices, Heinze and others point to district-run preschools, universal free all-day kindergarten, expanded programs for gifted students and a number of state-recognized innovation schools.

Board member Catherine Ushka said she would have liked more communication from the commission before its decisions were made.

Sundquist pointed out that the commission was in a start-up phase during the first round of approval. It held public forums in Tacoma during the process, and information was also available online.

“I understand your frustration, but I feel like you are beating up on us,” Dziko said. “Three schools are already approved. We can’t unapprove them.”

She suggested the school board and the commission work together to determine future steps.

Washington voters approved an initiative establishing charter schools in 2012. It allows up to 40 charters to open over five years.

Public school districts have several obligations under the law.

• They must provide information to parents noting that charter enrollment is an option.

• They must include charters in planning for district levies during the first levy election after a charter opens.

• They must give charter schools a first chance to purchase or lease any property the district decides to sell or lease.

Charters can also contract with school districts for services such as transportation and meals.

Sundquist said the commission sees its role as helping to oversee the “charter bargain.” Charter schools gain greater autonomy with the expectation that they will help students reach a higher level of achievement, he said.

Under the law, local school boards have the option of becoming charter school authorizers. Those that exercise this option oversee the approval process and can set goals for the charters that open within their boundaries. Otherwise, charter schools apply through the state commission.

The Tacoma School Board flirted with the idea several times last year but in the end decided to opt out for several reasons, including a lack of clarity around how much control they would have. During the campaign to pass the charter school initiative, the board adopted a resolution opposing it.

After the meeting with state commission members ended Thursday, school board members held their regular business meeting. There were more comments about charters at that time.

Ushka pointed out that the majority of Tacoma voters did not favor the initiative in the 2012 election.

But she acknowledged that charters “are here and we’re stuck with them.”

Vialle said she does not feel charters add value to the school district, but are instead a distraction.

“I hope the commission heard us,” she said.