Material things

Creative financing for creative teaching takes an unexpected turn at High Desert Montessori School

High Desert Montessori principal Carol Andrew says classrooms need to have material like this igneous rock collection to entice students to explore and learn.

High Desert Montessori principal Carol Andrew says classrooms need to have material like this igneous rock collection to entice students to explore and learn.

One 2-inch, 3-ring binder. Three packages No. 2 pencils. One pair scissors. One protractor. Glue: two 8-oz. bottles, white.

These are some materials you might expect to see on a shopping list teachers send home to parents before the school year gets underway. Students at High Desert Montessori School, one of Washoe County’s handful of charter schools, use these materials, too—just not that often. Their classrooms are typically set up like small labs. One classroom, in a state of preparatory disarray a few weeks before the new school year begins, featured an igneous rock collection for a science and natural history project and a board with various groupings of colorful beads to help students with math. These are the kinds of materials High Desert Montessori principal Carol Andrew says need to be in classrooms to entice students to explore and learn.

‘The things we need are unique to Montessori,” says Andrew, her short blonde hair framing a bespectacled, earnest face. “They’re not things you can just go to Office Depot and pick up.”

To help outfit these classrooms, the charter school, about to begin its fourth year, has been charging parents an annual $225 “consumable materials fee.”

But the Washoe County School District, in a July 10 report, said High Desert Montessori School was out of compliance with their charter by charging this fee and that they must stop. The annual school compliance review said HDMS was charging parents a 5-percent late fee and that “statements were mailed to parents threatening that failure to pay the fee will ‘result in exclusion from our program.’ The charter school’s original charter application states that no fees will be charged.” The document further says the school’s governing board “voted to drop the consumable material fee for the 2006-2007 school year and will refund any fees collected” for that year.

Charter schools have their own boards of directors and their own curricula, but the school district has oversight responsibilities to make sure they’re living up to Nevada laws and to the charter they were granted. As public schools, they operate under the same general guidelines as “regular” schools. For instance, says WCSD spokesperson Steven Mulvenon, “They can’t discriminate in their admissions. They have to take whoever comes knocking at the door. … High Desert had a policy last year of, in essence, assigning this across-the-board fee for everyone for unspecified supplies and materials, and I believe I’m correct in saying they further told parents payment of the fee was mandatory. … When we did our compliance and monitoring report, we called them on that. We said, ‘Listen, you’re a public school; you can’t charge an admission fee.'”

The document sounds straightforward enough—HDMS charged money for materials when they said they wouldn’t, making them noncompliant.

But Andrew says some of the charges in the compliance document were based on a misunderstanding due to a large clerical error on the part of HDMS. Instead, she says, parents never were charged interest on late payments of consumables fees, and children never risked expulsion from school if their parents didn’t pay the fee.

However, looking at HDMS invoices, it’s easy to see how parents and the WCSD would think otherwise. A footnote at the bottom of every invoice read: “A 5% late fee will be applied if payment is not received by 10 days after due date. Non payment for more than two weeks after late date may result in exclusion from our program.”

That would be a whopping clerical error.

HDMS financial officer Angie Martin wrote that footnote after $29,600 in fees for before- and after-school programs went unpaid. The footnote was meant to go only on invoices for those auxiliary programs. (Families qualifying for free and reduced lunches were not charged for these programs). What Martin didn’t realize—until the school district called her on it—was that she accidentally left the footnote on all invoices, including those for consumable materials fees, leaving parents to conclude nonpayment could mean getting booted from the school.

Misunderstandings and missteps
Andrew says the compliance document also doesn’t take into account the specific needs of teachers and students at the Montessori school.

“We have a need for the classroom to be in state of an interactive museum that tries to be ready to go when the child shows an interest in something,” says Andrew.

So while few textbooks and notebooks are necessary, students do need materials used in activity centers and labs—things the whole class can use. There’s no need for each child to have a $1,000 bead board, for example. One item has to be ordered from a manufacturer in the Netherlands through a company in Mountain View, Calif.

“So if families don’t mind stopping through Mountain View, Calif., then sure,” says Andrew. “We were trying to take the resources of a community and use them to everyone’s best advantage.”

The charter school gets per-pupil funding from the school district, as do all public schools, but Andrew says it’s not enough to cover a Montessori education. (The average cost of a private Montessori education is between $7,000 and $11,000.) Unlike public schools, HDMS’ rent is about 25 percent of their budget, and they don’t have access to bonds based on property taxes that other schools have. That’s partly why the school was asking parents to chip in on materials fees. It wasn’t until Fall 2005, when HDMS had $24,000 in outstanding consumable materials fees (and risked losing an elementary teacher’s aide to make up for the cost), that HDMS began keeping track of who was paying what.

Martin and Andrew add that low-income families who could demonstrate a financial need—proof of receiving subsidized housing, food stamps, etc.— could get financial help ranging from 10-100 percent discounts even if they didn’t fall under federal poverty standards. Last year, 13 families representing 25 students received $4,300 in discounts for consumables fees.

Not good enough, said the school district. Paying for special materials still didn’t sound like a free public school, and the original charter said they’d collect no fees.

It’s another example of the misunderstandings and missteps that can arise when a young and growing charter school and a school board with monitoring responsibilities struggle to understand each other. The trick now is to get the two groups working together to allow for the type of education envisioned by Montessori while adhering to the rules of the school district and the school’s own charter.

“We’ll appeal to the parents for generosity this year and work with the district in the [charter] renewal process [coming up next year]” says Andrew. “Until then, we’re doing without.”