Brentwood resident Ron Nunn and a coalition of local supporters presented the idea to the school board during a special workshop meeting on March 31.
“We’re just kind of developing the idea at this point,” said Nunn, who has longtime roots in East County. “But the prospect of a using a vacant school that is very nice, and the opportunity to provide some alternative sites in East County, is appealing.”
Knightsen School Superintendent Vickey Rinehart agreed that a charter in Knightsen could be a good option for students countywide, and can’t deny the possible financial boon to her district that has struggled to make ends meet since opening Old River in 2008. The district owes an annual $265,000 on a bank loan that was secured to finish Old River School, and Rinehart has said coverage of that loan through a lease with Nunn’s group would be a powerful incentive.
“One of the obvious benefits to Knightsen would be to have the yearly payments on our loan covered,” said Rinehart. “It would also be an advantage to other students who live in any area that touches Contra Costa County because they would be able to enroll in the charter. It (a charter) offers the possibility of drawing kids from a variety of sources that might not otherwise be available.”
Funded with public money, charter schools fall somewhere between private and public schools, and their traditionally smaller class size and range of studies make them attractive to students. Charter schools typically have more leeway in their curriculum than public and private schools (although they are required to adhere to state benchmarks and testing schedules) and are generally believed to offer a more intensive, rounded education for both gifted and struggling students.
Nunn said possible plans for the charter school, which would initially serve grades K-4, would include a variety of programs unique to area public schools, including bilingual instruction for every student. The charter could also provide job opportunities for teachers recently laid off due to district budget cuts.
A new charter school in East County (currently there are two, both located in Antioch) has the potential to open myriad opportunities to students throughout Contra Costa, including those who are home-schooled or simply unsatisfied with their current schools. Students from any district could move to the charter without permission from local districts and take their state-funded dollars with them.
Since California gives school districts an annual per-student subsidy based on the size of the school district, many school districts are alarmed by any loss of students –and the nearby Byron Union School District is no exception.
“The idea of having a charter school a stone’s throw from The Lakes community is not a welcoming thought,” said Byron Superintendent Eric Prater of the Discovery Bay development located within walking distance of Old River. “I believe in competition as an important aspect to improving any organization; however, these are dire times and every student is vital to the success of our district.
“In short, this creates an educational arms race of sorts in the Far East County … in fairness, long-term goals in the Byron district reflect a desire for innovation that includes the exploration of charter schools. But once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be very difficult to get it back in, and we are exploring this option with extreme care.”
Rinehart agreed that the presence of a charter in the area could draw students away from her own district. Since the type of charter being proposed is one in which the charter school acts as its own entity, any funding received would stay with the charter instead of being distributed throughout the district. And although the charter school would be supervised and overseen by the Knightsen district, it would remain financially independent.
For Rinehart – whose small district currently receives state funding for its special-education students, as well as a rural-school grant and county dollars for its small school district – should the district increase in size due to the addition of the charter school, it stands to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual support.
“So for us, the financial benefit is a bit of a mixed bag at this point,” said Rinehart. “The leasing of Old River is a benefit, but another possible negative is that when you sponsor a charter you are responsible for monitoring the charter and the kids, and for that you get 1 percent of the income, which could be $10,000 to $12,000 a year. But it takes an unbelievable amount of time to do ongoing assessments, start testing, oversee the payroll – you are in essence acting as an auditor and you have to be accurate and timely.”
The next step in the process is the presentation of a petition to the Knightsen School Board, which Nunn hopes will take place at the next regular board meeting on April 14. Once the petition is presented, the district has 30 days to analyze the petition, hold a public hearing on it, and respond to Nunn and his group with an acceptance or rejection.
“Now there is a huge time crunch in getting the charter written and meeting the requirements at the state level for funding and other items,” said Nunn. “This is all still in the formative stages, but we’ll see if we can get it done.”
For more information on the proposed charter, call the Knightsen School District at 925-625-0073. The Knightsen School Board’s next meeting is scheduled for April 14 at 6:30 p.m. at Knightsen Elementary School, 1923 Delta Road.