Spokane will be home to Washington’s first charter school.
The state’s second-largest school district made the leap Wednesday in a historic school board vote to unanimously approve one of three charter school applicants: Pride Prep, a grass-roots effort led by former Garry Middle School Principal Brenda McDonald.
Spokane Public Schools’ board followed the recommendations of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and denied the applications of two California-based charter schools, Academy of Arts and Sciences and iLead.
“We are honored to have been the first in the state to authorize a charter,” board President Jeff Bierman said.
McDonald is thrilled and terrified to be the first. She said she knows all eyes will be on her success or failure. Despite the pressure, she’s confident.
“These are kids’ lives,” McDonald said. “We have to do this right.”
Spokane Public Schools is the first to decide on a charter school since voters approved the law.
The Washington State Charter School Commission, the only other entity that can approve charter schools, is reviewing 19 applications for possible sites in different cities throughout the state.
Since no other school districts have completed applications to date, Spokane schools and the commission will continue to be the only authorizers until October 2014.
Spokane Public Schools has welcomed charter schools since the start.
Shelley Redinger, superintendent in Spokane, announced a desire to become a charter school authorizer before the vote on Initiative 1240 had been finalized in 2012.
More than a dozen districts have notified the Washington state Board of Education of intentions to do the same, yet none have followed through.
That gives Spokane an advantage of choosing who sets up a school within its boundaries. The state’s remaining 294 districts are at the mercy of the state commission’s vetting process and decisions.
Spokane schools held its public hearing on the three charter applicants last week. The meeting went off without any opposition.
The commission has had mixed reactions at its hearings.
“We’ve done seven public hearings, they’ve been well attended and the audience has generally been supportive, and a couple have not been so supportive, but all have been civil and constructive,” said Steven Sundquist, Washington State Charter School Commission chair.
Much of the ire came from teachers unions.
Charter schools have been wrapped in controversy since voters approved the law, which allows for eight schools to open per year over five years. The Washington Education Association, along with several other plaintiffs, continues to wage a legal fight to declare the schools unconstitutional.
Jenny Rose, Spokane Education Association president, said there are a few reasons why unions are not in favor of charter schools.
“Spokane taxpayers will be paying for any charter schools in our community. Our local school board, although an authorizer – will have no control or say in these charter schools,” she said. “Charter schools divert money and resources from our existing schools. Charter schools cater to a small, select group of students, instead of serving all our community kids.”
Nevertheless, efforts to set up charter schools in Spokane and throughout the state have forged ahead.
McDonald plans for Pride Prep to be taking students starting in the fall of 2015.
Staff and administration will be hired starting this summer. The school will start with fewer than 60 kids in sixth and seventh grades, and eventually build to about 540 students in grades six through 12.
The budget for 2015-16 is an estimated $1.5 million. By 2019-20, it’s expected to grow to close to $5 million, according to the charter’s application.
The location is yet to be determined. Ideally, McDonald wants to be located on or near a college campus, such as the downtown University District or Spokane Falls Community College. She is also considering the former Pratt Elementary School.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the board and administrators praised the thoroughness of McDonald’s application.
“I spent a lot of time researching other charters to find sound processes,” McDonald said. “That helped create a balanced application.”
She added, to this point in her professional career – more than two decades in public education – “this is the hardest thing I’ve had to do.”