Parents remain hopeful that the school board will vote in favor of the charter status.

By Laura Tate / The Malibu Times

The head of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has recommended to the Board of Education that it deny the application for the Point Dume Marine Science Charter School. The board is scheduled to vote on the application at a special meeting this week Thursday.

The recommendation by Superintendent Tim Cuneo is based on what he states in a staff report to the board that the charter application does not meet legal requirements in several areas.

A group of parents earlier this year organized to seek charter status for Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School because they were concerned the school could possibly be closed due to low enrollment and because of the state's financial crisis, which has resulted in major budget cuts to the district, and which, parents believe, could possibly affect the school.

Spearheaded by local parents Ali Thonson and Robyn Ross, an application was filed in late September and a board hearing was conducted to gather public input on the charter application. It has the full support of all 11 teachers at the school, as well as many local community members. Support of the majority of teachers at a school is a requirement in order to apply for charter status.

Cuneo states in the staff report that the charter petitioners' fears of the district closing the school and that the “loss of state funding would cause loss of services and resources at the school” are unfounded and “do not provide a basis for the conversion of the school to charter status.” He also says that the petitioners fail to prove that the new school would provide the “same high quality instruction and resources offered by the District,” and that the new school would “be exclusive and lacking in diversity.”

Thonson, in an interview Tuesday, said that the charter group is “definitely disappointed” about Cuneo's recommendation.

“It is an unfair analysis of our petition,” she said, adding, “Though I am discouraged by the report … it's the Board of Education that has the final decision whether to approve or deny the application. I do know through our meetings with them since we began the process, and communication with the board members and their positive comments at public hearing's that this is something that they are really listening to and really considering.”

Several parents, including Thonson and Ross, say that Cuneo in a November 2009 state of the schools address said that although closure of the school was not on the table for the 2010-11 school year, the following year was not out of the question.

Cuneo, in an earlier story in the Times, said he could not recall exactly what he said, but also said, “I probably said I can't predict the future if things financially get worse than they are,” Cuneo said. “I would think [in that situation] the board and I would be studying consolidation of schools and a variety of other things. But those are huge steps to take, and it takes a long time to think them through and the impact it would have on a child's education.”

He added that the board did not discuss closure of Point Dume Elementary.

The staff report also cites as major deficiencies in the charter petition the following concerns: the petitioners' lack of experience in public education and past experience with school operation; lack of a sound financial and operation plan, with a deficit of $400,000; as well as the plan's failure to define and build upon curriculum and teaching methods that will help students meet state standards.

Thonson said the charter's educational plan was prepared by the teachers at Point Dume and the financial plan was prepared by a budget writer who has worked with the state for more than 20 years, and who “did make the statement that budget is sound and viable.”

“We know that we need to raise money,” Thonson said, “and we have the financial pledge of commitment from parents and other [community members] for more than $500,000 to help support programs.”

In addition, Thonson said, all the programs such as marine science, technology, art, and an organic garden are all PTA funded.

“It's a really solid and lengthy petition, which outlines every aspect of what teachers are going to teach, how [they will] incorporate [educational methods] and intend to grow and change on a year-to-year basis,” Thonson said.

The charter petition outlines that the new school would be funded mostly through the state government based on daily attendance. Additional money would come from federal programs and local community support. The petition projects $2.4 million in revenue for the first school year, with the amount going up by $100,000 each year. Expenditures are projected to be less than revenue in each of those years. The school would be audited twice per year.

Regarding educational experience, Thonson said they hired a leading law firm experienced in charter schools, and noted that a great deal of research was conducted with people who have experience in education and with charter schools, and that the teachers, who helped draft the petition, will most likely stay at the school.

Thonson also disagreed with the report's assertion that the charter school would fail to provide a diversity of students. She said they plan to recruit students from other communities and that they do not plan to recruit from local schools, a concern voiced by parents at the two elementary and the middle schools. The proposed creation of a sixth grade at the charter school has also worried many, saying it would drain resources and teachers from the middle school.

However, in a letter to the editor (see page A4), the proposed charter school's board wrote, “PDMSC plans to conduct outreach in neighboring school districts as a means of increasing diversity and offering the opportunity of PDMSC to a broader base of students. To the extent the population of PDMSC increases through outreach to other districts, the potential reduction of students from the 6th grade at Malibu High School is decreased and the likelihood exists for those new students to continue on to Malibu High.”

If the board does not approve the petition, then the charter group can file one with the county, and if the county passes on it, the group can appeal to the state. Whatever entity approves the petition would become the supervisory agency over the school. However, as noted in Cuneo's report to the board, if the board is not the authorizer of the petition, “the District's obligations with respect to the charter school are limited to transfer of what would become the charter's school's share of local property taxes,” meaning that the new charter school would not receive as much money from the district as it would if the district were the supervisory agency.

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