Fort Smith School Board grills charter school supporters

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 87 views 

Deanie Mehl, president of the Fort Smith School Board, admitted Monday night (Sept. 14) that many on the Board are “hung up on the money” that could be lost by the school district if a proposed charter school opens in Fort Smith. However, Mehl said the Board “should embrace” the idea of a school that might provide unique options to students.

Those organizing and supporting Future School of Fort Smith believe they will have an open enrollment charter school providing unique options. Trish Flanagan, a founder of the effort to create Future School of Fort Smith, and other Future School supporters met with a committee of the School Board on Monday to answer questions about the proposed charter school.

The Board committee eventually agreed to vote Sept. 28 on a motion to consider support, opposition or a neutral stance on the proposed charter school. That agreement followed more than 60 minutes of a barrage of questions from the Board to charter school supporters.

An application for Future School was filed July 28 with the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE). Flanagan and other charter school supporters will on Oct. 14 present the plant to state education officials in Little Rock.

The school concept is based on three “pillars,” according to Flanagan. Those are “real world collaboration,” “project-based learning,” and the use of integrated technologies. With charter approval, the school would begin in 2016 with 150 students in 10th grade, and would add 15 students and a grade each year until by year three the school would be home to grades 10-12 and 450 students. Funding for the school would come from the Arkansas Department of Education.

As Mehl noted, an approved charter school would draw money away from school districts. For example, a little more than $6,600 of state funding follows a student, which means if 100 students from Fort Smith go to the charter school, the Fort Smith School District would lose more than $660,000. Because the charter school is open enrollment, students from any school district in the state may attend. If by year four there are 400 of the 450 students from the Fort Smith School District, the district would see a reduction in state funds of around $2.7 million.

“In order to receive approval from the Arkansas Department of Education, we need to demonstrate financial viability based primarily on state foundation funding ($6,646 per student/year). We also anticipate financial support from various local, national and international philanthropic organizations that align with our mission and values,” noted part of a Q&A section from a recent Future School document.

In her opening comments to the Board, Flanagan praised Fort Smith school officials for their “tremendous amount of success” over the years, and asked the Board to “come to the table” with the proposed charter school “and help us be what charter schools were supposed to be when they first started, which is to be a laboratory for the larger school district.”

But Board member Rick Wade was ready with a long list of questions that suggested he was not eager to come to the table.

“Why should we not believe that you’re not going to take our best and brightest,” Wade asked Flanagan. “How do we know that you’re not going to cherry pick?”

She noted that the selection is a random lottery, with the Arkansas Department of Education monitoring the process.

Wade also wanted to know from Flanagan what she believes the Fort Smith School District is not providing that suggests the need for a charter school. She said the group looked at all options, and even went into the process not sure if a charter would be necessary. Flanagan said their research eventually pointed to a charter school that allowed for students to build a curriculum around their passions. She said those supporting the charter are hoping School District officials would see that the proposed charter comes down to “a matter of opening our minds … to put our students first.”

Later in the meeting, Wade also asked Flanagan if the proposed school would work to hire away some of the best public school teachers.

“No … we want to be good neighbors and partners,” Flanagan said, adding later, “Are we going to be sneaking around and trying to recruit? No”

Wade also wanted to know if the school would be “willing to assist us in a millage increase effort?” The district has not had a millage increase in more than 30 years, and the District has recently proposed a millage increase to add and improve facilities.

Steve Clark, president of Fort Smith-based Propak Logistics and a supporter of the charter school, provided a qualified answer, saying they would support a millage plan “if it’s determined to be in the best interest” of the community.

Two parents and former Fort Smith Public School graduates spoke in favor of the charter school. Talisha Richardson, a Northside High School graduate, said she moved away from the region and saw what is available in other cities. She said “healthy competition” would be created by Future School, but would “not to take away from what we are doing at the other schools, but to simply add on” to the options.

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