Navigator: Thrown off course by County

James Dent, founder of Gilroy Prep School and Hollister Prep School, speaks to the Morgan Hill Unified School District board Tuesday evneing during the public hearing for Navigator Schools charter petition.

Navigator Schools will forge ahead with its goal of opening a brand new charter campus in Morgan Hill, despite a recommendation from Santa Clara County Office of Education staff to deny the organization’s second petition on appeal.
The negative recommendation came just two days after another charter management company trying to open a new facility in Morgan Hill – Redwood City-based Rocketship Education, which is already operating eight charters in the county – withdrew its petition that was also on appeal to the County and its seven-member board. The Morgan Hill Board of Education previously voted down Rocketship’s initial petition in November 2013.
Both Rocketship and Navigator were aiming to open elementary schools in the 2014-15 school year.
The County Board has authority to override MHUSD’s decision.
“We’ve got one last chance to basically refute (the County staff’s recommendation) and let the public officials weigh the truth,” said Navigator co-founder James Dent.
Dent said Navigator, if denied on appeal, will consider appealing to the State Board of Education or submitting a third petition to MHUSD after completely addressing the latest round of concerns raised by County staff.
“We will never stop trying to collaborate with Morgan Hill Unified School District,” he said.
Dent, a former traditional public school teacher and principal, including four years spent at Eliot Elementary School in Gilroy, has been at the helm of Navigator since its inception in 2010 and stewarded the organization through the launching of the highly successful Gilroy Prep, followed by Hollister Prep that opened in fall 2013.
County Board President Leon Beauchman and trustee Grace Mah insisted they were reserving judgment on the appeal until Wednesday’s meeting. They planned to ask County staff how they arrived at their conclusion, and also wanted to gain additional insight from Dent and MHUSD Interim Superintendent Steve Betando.
“I will make up my mind at the meeting,” said Beauchman, noting that on “at least one occasion” the Board has gone against County staff’s recommendation to deny a charter petition. “It is very much our obligation that we focus on the facts.”
Mah added the County’s recommendation “will weigh heavily in my decision,” but that she remained undecided.
“It’s not a done deal,” continued Mah, who, along with each county trustee, received an email rebuttal from Dent on Monday addressing the dozen or so concerns raised by County Office of Education staff. “A lot of (Dent’s responses) make sense.”
In the County’s review, staff concluded, “Although there is no one major deficiency in the Petition, the fact that there are weaknesses in multiple areas of the Petition … is disconcerting.”
Dent argues all of the County’s findings in the original Navigator petition are “not a legal reason to deny the (Morgan Hill Prep School) petition.” He even provided information countering each point made by County staff.
However, County staff was required to review the original petition Navigator submitted to MHUSD back in August 2013 – without taking into account any additional materials provided by Navigator to the County in order to clear up specific areas of concern. County Superintendent Xavier De La Torre said staff had to work in this manner since any updated documents apparently represent a different petition than what MHUSD denied in October 2013.
Aside from this strange variable, Navigator “made a strong effort to be responsive to some of the (County’s) concerns,” according to De La Torre.
“As an appellate body, we’re supposed to determine whether or not MHUSD was fair in assessing the petition before them. We had to stay within the confines of the original petition,” De La Torre explained.
The County questioned Navigator’s methods of assessment for English Language Learners; failure to show differentiation of instruction for ELLs in the mainstream classroom; and exclusion of a state-required English Learner Advisory Committee. The petition was also found to lack information and qualifications used for “non-core or non-certificated teachers,” as well as ample opportunity for parent involvement in Navigator’s governing body.
“No one is suggesting that it isn’t possible for this school to have the same level of success that the school in Gilroy had the first year,” De La Torre added. “We’re just simply saying elements in the (Morgan Hill) petition were not articulated in a way that reflected a thought-out, deliberate, detailed, innovative program different from what one would find in a traditional public school.”
Dent was puzzled by the County’s conclusion since Gilroy Prep, in its first two years, scored a 978 and 942 respectively on the Academic Performance Index, the state’s recently retired method for measuring academic achievement with an 800 benchmark. Gilroy Prep’s first year of operation nabbed the highest API in the history of California.
As for the new state assessment system – Measures of Academic Proficiency and Progress, which replaces the API – the County dinged Navigator for not recognizing it. But Dent noted that MAPP “was signed into law on Oct. 2, 2013,” nearly two months after the petition was submitted.
Betando, alternately, said he was “confident” County staff would draw the same conclusions as his staff.
“It wasn’t a surprise because we knew the County was doing a thorough review,” said Betando, who, after taking over as MHUSD interim superintendent in July 2013, led the charge opposing the charter movement in Morgan Hill. “Our kids are so important that it’s necessary to really look at the program in depth … and the sustainability of it.”
The County also said Navigator had a “questionable financial and operational plan” that does not incorporate the Local Control Funding Formula guidelines school districts must use to evaluate operational budgets by next school year. However, Dent said Navigator has provided additional documents showing Navigator’s updated budget that uses the new guidelines.
But since those documents were not part of the original petition, County staff could not take them into account, according to De La Torre.
Additionally, Navigator overstated its start-up grant money through the Public Charter School Grant Program, according to County staff.
But Dent claims Navigator is in excellent financial footing with a reserve well above the state’s requirement of 3 to 5 percent of operational expenses. According to Emeryville-based EdTec, which specializes in handling business services for charter schools, Navigator’s second-year audited financial statement has a reserve fund balance of $891,905 in unrestricted net assets, or 54 percent of expenses. That balance rose to $1,272,055, or 78 percent of expenses, when including restricted net assets.
“I’ve never seen a school be more successful financially than Gilroy (Prep) has been over the first two years of operation,” said Bryce Fleming, EdTec’s Director of Client Management and School Finance. “Gilroy was financially successful in two of the most difficult budget years that charter schools have ever faced.”
• Navigators’ “rate of expansion,” exemplified by its goal of opening a third charter school in Morgan Hill just one year after launching Hollister Prep on the R.O. Harden Elementary School in San Benito County, and three years after opening its flagship charter school in Gilroy.
• The capacity of Navigator’s leadership team to “successfully oversee three new schools in four years, each in a distinctive community with unique needs and student populations.”
• Doubts as to whether Navigator could establish the same “unique rapport” with MHUSD staff that it shares in Gilroy and Hollister.

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