Charter school grant derailed

Saying there were just too many questions and not enough time to get answers, the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees voted March 19 to delay voting on a proposed charter middle school.

The move didn’t kill the John Dewey Middle School, but it did end any chance its promoters have of collecting on a $350,000 grant that would have provided a lot of what effort leader Brad Mentzel called “extras"—computers, a research lab, staff development and more.

Although several students, a college professor and others urged the board to OK the school, trustees were concerned about issues ranging from facilities to governance, but most of all the tight timeline under which they were asked to act. (The grant had a March 25 deadline.)

The proponents had been working hard on the charter school’s mission and educational program for more than a year. “With a huge grant on the line, why did we not get this until … two weeks before you needed it?” asked Trustee Scott Huber. The charter, supporters replied, was tied up with the state and an attorney longer than they anticipated.

The school, with its 75-plus sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, would take an integrated approach to teaching, molding the curriculum around themes and project-based learning. (John Dewey was an American education philosopher.)

One parent of three Chico Country Day School students who pulled her eighth-grader out this year said she’s worried the current structure isn’t working for all students, and it’s the same leaders who would be running the new school. “It is lacking some vital components,” said Fox Brown, whose son felt unprepared for high school. “An appreciation for diversity is not truly present.”

CCDS has long been unable to rouse a significant number of ethnically and socio-economically diverse families, but John Dewey supporters vowed to market the school to the Hispanic and Hmong communities. CUSD Superintendent Scott Brown found the school’s bylaws “troublesome” in the power so quickly handed to a new board and also didn’t like that the school had leased space in a shopping center near the existing Cohasset Road school with the rent to be deferred until it could be charged to the charter grant. (The new school would be located at one of three potential locations elsewhere in town.) Brown also related that one of the rooms used for teaching does not meet state standards for student occupation. Furthermore, two of the three teachers who initially committed to teach at the school have changed their minds.

Mentzel, a director at CCDS, was one of the main people who started Chico Country Day School in 1996. But recently CCDS’s executive board voted not to renew his contract with the school effective at the end of this year. There’s plenty of politics at the little school, and Mentzel said only that “the board decided to go in a different direction.” An entirely new school, he said, could be governed by middle-school parents, not the elementary-dominated board at CCDS.

Trustee Steve O’Bryan moved denial of the charter, noting that the applicants wouldn’t have come forward if they didn’t feel the 43-page charter document was as good as they could get it. But after some discussion the four other board members decided instead to table the issue and gather more information.

Trustee Rick Anderson asked that, before the matter comes up again April 2, parents ponder why the great educational program can’t just be implemented at the current site by the CCDS elementary school at 2412 Cohasset Road.

An undercurrent in any discussion of charter schools is the fact that having children there instead of regular district schools means loss of a lot of per-student government money. But denial of a charter must note a specific reason for doing so.

Mentzel, regrouping a week after the meeting, said supporters have far from given up on the John Dewey Middle School. If the CUSD turns it down, they’ll appeal to the Butte County Office of Education or the state.

Mentzel blames himself for not bringing an air-tight case to the board sooner. "I was the one who didn’t understand exactly all the timelines," he said, and as soon as he gets a list of concerns from the Superintendent’s Office, "we can address everything he brought up."