School of Hard Knocks 

Garden City Community School fights for survival after difficult year

During its brief existence the Garden City Community School has learned some tough lessons.

After opening last fall, the school has racked up debt, lost students and moved twice--all while dealing with the possibility of being closed down by the state because of some of those very factors.

"We had a lot of setbacks," said Barbara Gaston, president of the Community School's board, as she surveyed the scene after classes were dismissed for summer vacation last week.

The very location of the school is just one example of many of the school's problems. Tucked into a nondescript strip mall at the western end of Garden City, the school's classrooms are spread between two beige buildings, bordered on one side by an Idaho Department of Motor Vehicles office. A small concrete play yard is surrounded by chain link fencing. The school is comprised of a winding series of rooms with metal support bars visible in some of the vaulted ceilings.

The makeshift nature of the setting is far from what was envisioned when the school obtained its charter in 2006.

As first proposed, the Community School planned to house kindergarten through eighth-grade students in modular classrooms on an acre and a half at the corner of Adams and 44th streets in the heart of Garden City. But the costs of preparing the site for the structures turned out to be more than expected. So, the board opted to break leases with both the landowner and the modular company. The result, after much negotiation between the parties, was a $23,000 debt.

"That's what put us behind the eight-ball," said school board member Jan Thomas. "It was just some excited people who really wanted to get started."

School officials were forced to scramble for space. Finally, they settled into the Unitarian Universal Fellowship for several months while the new location was renovated to meet school building codes. The process not only created additional debt--with bills for architects, lawyers and construction, among others--it also scared off some of the families that had committed to attending the school.

Of the 125 students signed up to attend the Community School, 97 actually started. The school ended the year with 84. This attrition caused further financial woes since the school's funding comes completely from the state, and is based on average daily attendance.

With a recorded $55,000 debt, the Idaho State Board of Education's Charter School Commission got nervous. The commission issued an order of defect on May 9, giving school officials less than a month to come up with a corrective action plan that included a timeline for repaying the debt and getting the school back on firm financial ground.

Tamara Baysinger, state charter schools program manager, said the committee wants to see the school have three months'-worth of operating expenses in the bank, but added that it is not a requirement.

The committee got its first look at this plan on May 24, then asked board members to come back with more precise budget and enrollment projections by June 7.

"They looked at the plan and had some questions and concerns about the accuracy of the numbers and the budget," Baysinger said. The numbers presented to the committee showed a starting balance of zero, and enrollment totals of 125 students.

"The question was 'Is that really accurate, and show us how that is,'" Baysinger said. The committee thought the enrollment figures were a little too optimistic, she said, and did not take into account natural attrition.

In addition, the committee asked for the current year's budget to be included in the report so they could better track school funds going into next year.

The committee will convene in a special meeting on June 14 to consider any new information provided. The process is moving quickly to make sure the issue can be resolved before the start of school in August, allowing families to make other arrangements if necessary.

Baysinger said administrative rule does not require the committee to formally approve an action plan, but it does require the school be given a reasonable amount of time to deal with whatever caused the defect. That amount of time is a subjective call, but if an acceptable plan of action isn't approved within a set time period, the committee can issue an intent to revoke, she said.

If the case reaches this point, the revocation notice is followed by a 30-day response period and a public hearing--time which the school could use to resolve the issue. If the committee ultimately revokes the school's charter, there is an appeal procedure in place, Baysinger said.

Gaston said the process has been a frustrating one for the board, which felt it already presented the committee with enough information to clear up financial questions. However, board members now feel better prepared, and have a more thorough list of what information the committee wants following last week's meeting, she said.

"We have a solid plan to get out of debt, and we havea strong school," Gaston said. "We have a strong financial picture."

If all goes as the board plans, Gaston said the school would be able to pay off its entire debt by the end of the next fiscal year in July of 2008, and most of that would be paid down within this calendar year.

In preparation for the committee review, the school's board mounted an all-out campaign to get signed commitments from as many students as possible for the 2007-2008 school year.

Gaston, who along with several other board members has been filling in as acting director since Linda Vermette left the position due to health problems at the end of April, said the committee was presented with 117 confirmed students and an additional 12 unconfirmed. Among those, 68 are returning students. Ideally, she said the board would like to see enrollment at roughly 150 students.

Gaston admits that if the school sees the same loss of students it did last year, there could be problems. But this is unlikely in her opinion, now that the school has a stable location and staff, nine of whom are full-time. While the board is planning to add a special education teacher, Gaston said staff will not receive a raise next year.

"We were really naive in salaries," she said. "We tried to be close to Boise and Meridian [school districts], but for a school this size, that's really not appropriate."

In addition to losing students due to families moving, or just wanting a more structured curriculum than offered at the Community School, many board members blame media coverage of the school's financial problems for scaring prospective students away.

"As news is generally reported, it comes out negative, but it was factual," Thomas said. "We were sorry that it was stated the way it was. We had a lot of people who had signed up their kids for next year that then dropped out because they didn't know if we were going to be here."

Thomas said she can understand those parents' concerns. "People want a place for their kids to go, and they want a good place."

One thing both the board and committee can solidly agree on is that it's not unusual for charter schools to run into difficulties in the first few years. But it's the combination of issues facing Garden City Community School that sets it apart, Baysinger said.

"This is what you might call one of the more extreme examples, but it's not uncommon for charter schools to run into facilities problems," she said.

While most schools' problems stem from out-of-control expenses, Garden City Community School's enrollment issues make it a unique case, she said. "This school has run into some hard knocks," Baysinger said. "The critical factor is getting enrollment up."

Only one charter school in the state has had its charter revoked, Baysinger said. In 2004, the Renaissance Charter School in Moscow was forced to close because of a combination of financial and governance issues.

But Gaston, Thomas and the other board members don't see this review process as a harbinger of an end, but as a setback.

"We have no intentions of closing. We plan on making it," Thomas said. "All of the teachers have signed on, they have faith that we will continue. We'll meet whatever we need to do to keep going because we feel we have a great school."

Gaston said the board is currently screening applicants to fill the director's position, one they would like to have filled by the end of June. The board is also looking toward the future, when members foresee the debt gone, and to having enough money in the bank to build their own facility in the heart of Garden City.

Baysinger said she can't fault Community School leaders from trying to look at the bright side, even while the Charter School Commission examines the fine print.

"They really believe in their school," she said. "But it's not uncommon for anybody to have a rosy picture about something they care so much about. The commission is just looking at it more realistically."

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