There are still a lot of head-scratching questions floating around in the wake of the Novato school board's decision to deny a petition to start a new public charter school.
Robert Verhoeff, a co-founder of the North Bay Educational Foundation, said he's going to focus on family during the holiday break rather than dive right back into the effort to open a charter school using the Core Knowledge teaching system. But, with the Novato Unified School District's unanimous denial vote fresh in mind, Verhoeff has a handful of questions that have yet to be sufficiently answered from his standpoint.
First is why the district did not allow the foundation an hour of time during the Dec. 18 board meeting to answer staff questions about the charter petition so that the trustees had responses to ponder when they rendered their decisions. Verhoeff said he believed that time would have clarified many sticking points brought up by district employees who wrote a scathing staff report in response to the charter application.
The foundation sent a request for a 1-hour block of time at the Dec. 18 meeting, but Superintendent Shalee Cunningham said no, and the district has said such a back-and-forth oral dialog is not part of the petition evaluation process.
"I would challenge either their attorney or district staff to show anybody where the process they followed is prescribed by law," Verhoeff said. "The board meetings are the property of the NUSD board, meaning they can chose whatever they want to do with their meetings. They are in charge of the agenda, and they certainly could have accommodated our request."
Board president Ross Millerick said the process is in state law, although there are many bills being presented that could impact the process down the line if they are approved. He said three board members would be taking a trip to Sacramento in January to offer ideas on how to make education laws better.
"It's a state-defined process," he said. "They had many months to prepare their application, and the district had 60 days to respond. It's the written record that's important."
Verhoeff questioned the role of the trustees as a governing body and overseer of the school district.
"It's concerning to me because whether a board is a school board, a company board or a nonprofit board, by it very nature it is supposed to be skeptical of management and be a deliberative body," he said. "It's not designed to just take what management says on face value without asking questions. Frankly that approach by NUSD causes a lot of consternation and concern from parents in Novato. The board is supposed to be a watchdog group."
Millerick said the trustees had complete trust in an experienced team of nine employees charged with examining the charter petition and writing a thorough evaluation for a staff report. In the end, the team recommended that the petition be denied, citing shortcomings in several key categories of state charter mandates.
"They reviewed that petition for 60 days and worked really hard on it," he said. "This community deserved a thorough review. It's a school district's duty to do that review. In the end, after a lot of review on our own among the trustees, we followed their recommendation."
Verhoeff said the foundation has yet to decide whether to appeal to the Marin County school trustees or rework the petition and resubmit it to NUSD.
Charter school supporters are seeking a new academic choice and a way to keep kids and families from leaving the public school system for private schools, which they say would benefit NUSD. Detractors say they are concerned about teacher layoffs, potential financial problems within the district, the closure of another school and the need to open such a school during such uncertain times for the education system.
The Novato Federation of Teachers, a group of school principals and several civil rights groups came out against the petition. The district said it stood to lose $1.4 million, for various reasons, if the petition were approved.
The foundation seeks to create a new public charter school for kids from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at a location to be determined later by the school district if the petition eventually gets approved. Unlike the Waldorf-inspired Novato Charter School, the North Bay Academy would follow a vastly different system called Core Knowledge, which is used by more than 700 charter schools across the country.