Petaluma's Waugh district weighs move to charter schools
Published: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 11:25 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 at 11:25 a.m.
The Waugh School Board next week is expected to vote on whether to submit an application to the state to convert both of its Petaluma campuses into charter schools.
The move would keep Sonoma County at the forefront of a statewide trend that has seen charter school conversions skyrocket in recent years.
Sonoma County trailed only Los Angeles in new charter schools this school year, with 10 of the 11 new schools being conversions from traditional to charter.
"In Sonoma County, because there are 40 districts, by converting to charter there are potential huge gains to a district by doing relatively nothing different," Waugh Superintendent Bob Cmelak said. "I think everyone is starting to realize there is a charter loophole here."
The decision to pursue a charter application came after district officials struggled to stave off budget cuts of $1.4 million of the $6.4 million guaranteed in state funding formulas.
District officials are hosting a community meeting at Corona Creek School tonight and the Waugh School Board is slated to take up the issue at board meeting Tuesday. The vote will be on whether to submit the application to the state, not on whether to make the final conversion, Cmelak said.
That decision hinges on Gov. Jerry Brown's education funding proposal, which has not been approved by the Legislature but could revamp the way California's school districts are paid, leaving Waugh vulnerable to still more cuts.
"Therein lies the problem. We are waiting to see what Sacramento does," Board President Matt Thomas said.
"I think it's a good idea or I wouldn't have asked the superintendent to continue with his research of it," Thomas said.
The district is currently deficit spending $330,000 this year and an expected $466,000 next year, Cmelak said.
Officials say converting all grades except two kindergarten classes to charter schools could allow the two-school, 920-student district with a 927 out of 1,000 state Academic Performance Index score significantly more funding while changing nothing of the schools' operations and programs.
"There won't be anything different on the face of the operation and the classes and how they are run and how they are taught. Nothing is going to change," Thomas said. "The only thing that changes is we become a charter."
Waugh is not the first Sonoma County school district to consider converting existing schools to charter campuses in order to take advantage of a state funding model that in many ways favors charters.
Today, 23 percent of Sonoma County's 70,600 kindergarten through 12th-grade public school students attend a charter school, up from 13 percent in 2010.
At a traditional school, a student must be absent five consecutive days to qualify for an independent study packet and for the state to pay the district attendance-based funding. At a charter school, a student can be absent one day, pick up a work packet and qualify the district to receive its daily funding.
The financial implication is significant. A one percentage increase in "attendance" for Waugh's 920 students would mean an additional $62,000 a year.
"That is a huge savings for a small district," Cmelak said.
The district could gain additional money through a formula that currently allows an accepting district to get the higher of two state per-pupil funding amounts when a student lives in one district but attends school in another. Approximately one-third of Waugh's students are interdistrict transfers, and the majority of them would bring a higher funding formula that Waugh receives from the state, Cmelak said.
But for some parents, any potential change brings anxiety.
"As it is, Meadow is the type of school that people buy their homes next to because they know they want to go here," said Kari Popovich, a mother of a second-grader and a Meadow graduate now at Kenilworth Junior High.
"I have had nothing but a stellar experience at Meadow as it is," she said. "What assurances are there that we can keep these teachers that we have grown to love?"
Cmelak said the idea has been discussed at board meetings as well as at site council and parent-teacher organization gatherings. Meetings are scheduled for tonight at Corona Creek and Thursday at Meadow School.
This week, district teachers voted overwhelmingly to move forward with the plan, Cmelak said, noting that should the district convert both campuses to charter schools, all bargaining agreements would remain in place.
"Zero change," Cmelak said.
The board's vote next week will decide whether to submit the charter to the state, not whether to officially change the designation of the school, he said.
"We would not go charter unless we found out what the governor is proposing in his May revise," he said.
Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.
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