Popular district charter high school gets its own nonprofit status, prepares for growth
Inspire School of Arts & Sciences is at a crossroads.
Geographically, it’s located on the western side of Chico High’s campus, near the transition to Chico State. The campus comprises two dozen portable buildings with a grass-patch courtyard—the solitary open space.
Organizationally, it’s a locally funded charter school, meaning the public monies that pay for its operations come from the state to the county to the Chico Unified School District. Since opening in autumn 2010, Inspire has existed as a “quasi-legal” entity within CUSD: not wholly under district auspices but not wholly distinct either. It’s the only one of the seven charter schools under CUSD’s jurisdiction that did not begin as its own nonprofit.
That status has changed: Inspire now has a 501(c)3 designation and an employer identification number with the Internal Revenue Service. The school and the district have spent this semester transferring legal, financial, technical and logistical functions. The deadline for many such matters is July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, because of challenges in switching the district’s business programs. The parties have a longer timeline for certain other technological aspects.
Concurrently, Inspire is racing to meet the June 5 deadline to apply for Proposition 51 funding. Prop. 51, passed in the November 2016 general election, allocates $500 million of a $9 billion education-facilities bond to charter schools. That same election, Chicoans approved a $152 million schools bond, Measure K; Inspire hopes to take its share, $3 million, along with additional funds to match Prop. 51 funds for an $8 million project.
Existing as an independent entity could assist Inspire in this endeavor. John Bohannon, the district’s director of state and federal programs, said the charter school previously could not even open its own bank account—so how could it secure millions in funding?
Bohannon said CUSD is not pushing out Inspire; rather, the move is being made in “really more of a business perspective that I think both the district and Inspire feel in the long run will give Inspire more flexibility to do the things they want to do…. We don’t want to see the collaborative environment change in any way.”
Principal Jerry Crosby echoed that sentiment. While her school may be going independent faster than others have—in six months, Crosby said, versus two years at both Paradise Charter Middle School and Redding School of the Arts—Inspire retains district support.
“This has just been a natural progression of growth,” Crosby said. “When the charter first formed seven years ago, it was a very, very young entity; the ties between the charter and the district were super, super tight. It was very much this district project, this district idea.
“Now we’re kind of grown up, we’re very established, but we’ve never had our own legal entity. The quasi-legal relationship lacks clarity. The purpose of doing the 501(c)3 is actually to serve both the district and Inspire.”
Inspire has—and has had from the start—its own board of directors governing decisions, including employment. CUSD, governed by its board, has administrative and functional responsibility for Inspire, including payroll and benefits.
If Inspire isn’t separate, who’s ultimately responsible, such as for employees?
“That’s one of those conundrums,” Crosby said, “one of those gray areas.”
Now that Inspire is becoming unequivocally responsible, Crosby and her board have myriad decisions to make, ranging from choosing their own insurance packages to another Internet service provider and phone system. Inspire uses two CHS classrooms; the high schools will need to coordinate how their soon-to-be different bell systems and computer technology will work together.
Significantly, Inspire utilizes the CUSD Performing Arts Center to mount large-scale productions, such as the musical Into the Woods earlier this month. The district built the theater at Pleasant Valley High; neither Inspire nor CHS has such a facility. Crosby said Inspire will continue to use it.
“The district has been very supportive of the process of change, and they’re working very closely with us,” Crosby said. “It’s going very rapidly; that would be my only one concern.”
Inspire is a “regional school,” Crosby said, with three-fourths of the 450-member student body living in Chico and others coming from Durham, Paradise, Oroville, Orland and Bangor. The campus is impacted for prospective and current students.
“We do have a waiting list,” she said, “but the impact comes more through our limited facilities.”
Inspire teaches seven theater classes without a theater. There’s demand for 11 dance classes, but with one dance room, Inspire can only hold eight. There’s one wet lab for 14 science classes and seven engineering classes.
“We can’t build stage sets on campus because there is no space to create and store materials,” Crosby continued. “We can’t have regular assemblies because we have no space that can hold all our students. In fact, the largest group we can put together in one space is about 60—that doesn’t even allow for full grade level meetings.
“Our great need at this point is a facility that allows us to take our programs from great to amazing.”
That’s where Prop. 51 comes in. Inspire is finalizing plans to replace certain portables with modulars: prefabricated sectional buildings. Inspire appreciates its location, as the proximity to Chico State allows for visits to and from university faculty; it just wants to upgrade 20-year-old, cramped quarters.
CUSD appreciates what Inspire is undertaking, with Bohannon calling the changes “a best-case scenario for Inspire and the district.
“This [transition] is going to be a challenge in the short run, but in the long run both the district and Inspire will emerge in a better situation.”