State board wrangles over charter grants The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

State board wrangles over charter grants

February 2nd, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
State board wrangles over charter grants
News
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By Cecilia Chan
Tribune Staff Writer

Two East Valley charter schools will each get up to $1.25 million over the next five years to expand or open more locations to serve disadvantaged children.

Though some members of the state Board of Education last week had reservations about equity and some recipients, the board approved 10 charter school grants totaling $12.5 million over five years.

The federal grants were awarded in 2018 to the Arizona Charter Schools Program.

“When I looked at this list of recipients and the criteria, the main question that came to my mind is in light of the fact we have three awards going to a single-charter entity, which is a significant sized charter and another award to another significant sized charter entity,” said board President Lucas Narducci, a lawyer.

The Legacy Traditional Schools in East Mesa, in Deer Valley and in East Tucson all received the grants as well as the American Leadership Academy for a new location in Surprise.

Legacy Traditional School has 16 locations in the state, including one in Gilbert and American Leadership has 12 locations, including four in Gilbert.

Other recipients include the soon-to-open facilities –Glen Canyon Outdoor Academy in Page, Highland Prep West in Avondale, Ridgeview College Prep in San Tan Valley and Liberty Leadership Academy in Cottonwood.  American Charter Schools Foundation operates Ridgeview College Prep and has 11 locations in the state, including one in Gilbert and one in Mesa.

Recipients Synergy Public Charter Schools in central Phoenix and Leading Edge Academy in East Mesa are expanding.

None of the schools have previously received the award, according to staff.

Narducci questioned if smaller charters were at a disadvantage in applying for the grants because they lacked professional grant writers compared with their larger counterparts.

To ensure there is equitable knowledge of the grants, they are well-advertised, said Kate Wright, chief of staff for the state Education Department, who noted her department provides three hours of free training to help with the application process.

But Narducci remained concerned.

“This is a considerable amount of money, $250,000 per year over five years,” Narducci said. “Some of the reasons that that money is being given, from what I’ve read, is to assist the schools in developing what they need to do for those areas to open up schools in the right areas to help the kids that want the help.

“At least two of the entities receiving the money, one entity receiving it three times, are very proficient in what they do. I think one entity’s got like 20,000 kids in their charter school system and another probably has just as many as that. So, they don’t really need that help.

Noting 20 percent of Arizona students are in charter schools, Narducci said, “There has to be a heck of a lot of charter schools than 15 applications” and that there were areas in the state “that need really good charter schools.”

“It just worries me. May be the process itself is not equitable and as broadly accomplished as it needs to be,” he said.

Wright said in applying for the federal money, Arizona intended to use it to support the opening and expansion of charter schools.

Wright noted that the federal grant the state received is based on Arizona’s plan to open 40 charters over five years, and that the funding process is designed “for a small number to receive” a grant over that time.

Board member Calvin Baker, a retired school superintendent from the Tucson area, said one of the most significant challenges facing the state is how to educate students living in poverty.

He questioned how many of the applicants had chosen that as their goal and how many of the charters are located in high-poverty areas.

“I would hope that our quality charters can be encouraged to open in areas where there is significant poverty,” Baker said, asking for a map that would show “whether or not these charters are locating in areas and neighborhoods where there are significant numbers of ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools, where there is a high need for quality or if they are locating in areas where there already are a lot of ‘A’ and ‘B’ schools.”

Wright said she didn’t know if the charters are located in high-poverty areas but would request more information to bring back to the board.

Board member Patricia Welborn who also sits on the board for Empower College Prep, a charter school, asked staff about the possibility of adding grant requirements for the federal grants such as proximity to a high-poverty area.

Wright said she would need to get more information regarding if it was possible to add more criteria.

While Narducci was inclined to postponing a vote, board member Armando Ruiz, CEO of Espiritu Schools, a charter system in South Phoenix, said a delay would affect the critical timeline for recipients that are in the process of creating new school sites.

“I don’t want to put these schools that have already got money invested, they’re moving ahead,” Ruiz said. “I don’t want to put them in a situation where there is undue stress to open these schools that they’ve already had planned.”

Narducci said he didn’t have any negative feelings about the recipients but he was still troubled that only 10 got the funds and that three of the 10 are with the same entity.

Ruiz said it was unfair to tell the operators who spent a year getting the grant that now the board didn’t like the process, though Baker countered, “This money was never guaranteed to anyone.”

“So no one should have a business plan that depends on this money,” Baker said. “A five-year funding being delayed by one month so that we can have good information is not unreasonable.”

The board voted 7-2 to approve the grants with Vice President Daniel Corr and members Christine Burton, Jill Broussard, Janice Mak, Robert Robbins, Ruiz and Welborn in the majority.

Corr said no one on the board was casting aspersions on the recipients but was questioning who was being served.

Legacy Traditional School in East Mesa, which opened in 2020, indicated it will use its money to expand its grades K-12 and Leading Edge Academy in East Mesa planned to do the same for its 9-12 campus.

The discretionary grants go to schools that have met one of four criteria – serving at last 40 percent racially and ethnically diverse students; serving at least 40 percent economically disadvantaged students eligible for the free and reduce lunch program; serving at least 40 percent of students with identified disabilities or serving at least 40 percent of students who are English-language learners.

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