District hires firm to find ‘deficiencies’ in charter school petition

Engaged students answer questions from the teacher during class at Gilroy Prep.

The Hollister School District hired a law firm to seek out deficiencies in the petition submitted for a charter school here – a move delaying the final board decision and signaling the first roadblock in an effort to open a campus here.

That consultant, Monterey-based law firm Lazano Smith, issued a 31-page report detailing what it deemed as deficiencies in the petition for a charter school.

Gilroy Prep School submitted the petition for a Hollister campus in late August. Hollister School District trustees would have been set to consider an approval or denial on the charter petition at this week’s meeting – about 30 days after a public hearing that occurred last month, as stipulated in the law. But both sides agreed to put off the consideration until late November so that Gilroy Prep can return with revisions in response to the deficiency report, which recommended a petition denial.

School boards have limited discretion – and must find inadequacies in one of five general areas laid out in the education code – when considering charter petitions and a potential denial.

Charter petitioners hope to open Hollister Prep School in 2013-14, with expectations for 180 students the first year in kindergarten through second grade and a gradual increase to K-8.

Gilroy Prep Principal James Dent, who is heading the effort to open Hollister Prep School, said he was surprised by the length of the deficiency report. He did acknowledge that Gilroy Prep expected roadblocks along the way in Hollister and said the organizers intend to continue on with efforts to open the city’s first charter school.

“We made a conscious decision to go to Hollister and help the Hollister community,” Dent said. “We knew it might take a little while – it might be a bit of a battle to get into Hollister.”

Dent has underscored Gilroy Prep’s unanimous approval from the Gilroy School District; healthy finances; and the recent, preliminary score of around 960 on its first Academic Placement Index exam – which considers 800 as a baseline.

“But at the same time,” Dent said, “some of the points in (the report) were valid points, and we’re thankful (the district) gave us the opportunity to revise what’s in there.”

Hollister School District Superintendent Gary McIntire said that although the purpose of hiring Lazano Smith was to find deficiencies and that the report was not required, officials’ intent was to “find out if they presented a sound petition or not.” School officials did not have a cost for the law firm’s work on the report available before publication.

“With something like this, we’re going to make certain we follow the law pretty closely,” McIntire said.

The report, considered preliminary but released to board members, contended that the petition included an array of deficiencies in three of five categories for potential denial. Within those three “Recommended Grounds for Denying the Charter Petition,” the law firm’s report outlined many other assertions of insufficiencies.

Some of the firm’s claims included a lack of reporting on such areas as staffing, special education intentions, the school’s governance structure, detailed plans for meeting needs of low-achieving or at-risk students, how it plans to address California’s transition to Common Core Standards in 2014, salaries not being broken down between restricted and unrestricted funding sources, costs of operating a lunch program, dispute resolution guidelines, and plans for educating English learners.

The document also questions the validity of such ideas as extending the school day to 4 p.m. – noting that lower grades would have a difficult time with it – and discrepancies in budget figures.

The report surmises that the applicants – due to references made to GPS throughout the petition – likely cut and pasted much of the Gilroy Prep application. Dent responded by saying they were attempting to clone a successful model.

While McIntire said the comparison to Gilroy Prep’s experience provided “a sense of how things have gone,” he also noted there are differences between the two communities to take into account. One of the deficiency claims in the report is a lack of explanation on curriculum beyond third grade.

“These are good people,” McIntire said. “The charter school folks are very good people and they intend to present a good program. But what works in Gilroy may not be easy to work here.” The superintendent said district officials wanted to “see the full range of the program.”

Dent, however, contended that charter petitions do not include “every little detail” and must be “somewhat vague” because slight changes in direction can result in being out of compliance.

He said Gilroy Prep also has hired an attorney, who told Dent the report was “nit picky” on the school’s part compared with her other charter experiences.

“There’s no quit in us,” Dent said. “We are doing this for students. We expected to have some bumps along the road. This is our first one.

“We’re trying to do our best to make it so the district feels comfortable. They’re doing their due diligence.”

McIntire said the district’s goal is to ensure the charter would provide a sound education and finances. He does not want any added burden on staff at the district, which would lose slightly less than $5,000 in state funding for each student attending Hollister Prep instead of traditional district schools.

“Any district could nit pick if you really wanted to,” McIntire said. “That’s not really the point.”

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