Dozens of charter schools lack sponsor for next year

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
January 19, 2011


Roseville, Minn. — Sixty-four charter schools in Minnesota are in limbo right now because the organizations that sponsor them still don't have the necessary approval to stay on as their sponsor, or authorizer.

Any school without a authorizer by July 1 will have to close. It's expected that most of those 64 schools will find a sponsor before that time, but charter school leaders say they're worried a few will have to shut their doors.

That means people like Tom Kearney, principal of New Heights in Stillwater, have been shopping for a new sponsor.

"We have a wonderful packet that demonstrates our financial house is in order, our academic house for the students we serve is in order," he said.

The Stillwater School District currently sponsors New Heights, but the district decided last fall to end that relationship.

"When I found out that we were no longer going to have our long-standing sponsor, I had anxiety that went through the roof because it was a surprise," he said. "I felt very abandoned."

Last week, Tom Kearney was handing out information packets at an open house in Roseville. The event brought together charter schools and potential sponsors.

Authorizers don't run charter schools, but by law, charter schools must have an authorizer to operate.

Two years ago, state lawmakers approved a new law that makes authorizers more accountable for the financial and academic performance of the schools they sponsor.

"I think the new law is great and it's really going to strengthen and make more consistent the quality of authorizing," said Cindy Moeller, the head of Student Achievement Minnesota, or SAM.

SAM is an approved charter school authorizer, and Moeller was at last week's open house, pitching her organization as a possible charter school sponsor.

A lot of advocates agree with Moeller's assessment that more accountability was a good goal for the law, but some also say there have been some unforeseen consequences.

The new law was prompted, in part, by reports of mismanagement at some charter schools. Authorizers now have more authority and responsibility to step in when fiscal problems arise.

The law also requires all existing authorizers to re-apply to keep sponsoring charter schools as a way to prove they can meet all the new demands.

Fifteen organizations have won that new approval so far. More are expected to win approval in coming months.

But at least 17 current sponsors have said they won't re-apply. As of today, 64 charter schools in Minnesota -- with a combined 13,000 students -- don't have a sponsor for next year.

Eugene Piccolo, who heads the Minnesota Assocaition of Charter Schools, said there is a lot of angst in the charter school community.

Piccolo does not expect all 64 schools currently in limbo to close -- but some could. That's why he's lobbying state lawmakers to extend the current arrangement by a year, a move that would help schools like the St. Paul City School.

"The school's been around for 13 years, I'd hate for it to close just because of a process," noted Nancy Dana, superintendent of St. Paul City School. Her current sponsor, the St. Paul School District, is not reapplying.

It's up to the state education department to approve new authorizers. David Hartman, supervisor of the Minnesota Department of Education's charter school division, said schools are right to be anxious. But he's confident the outcome will be positive.

"I think that this is a major point of maturation for the charter school world in Minnesota," he said. "That's not to say the schools aren't responsible, but it's no longer just this charming innovation. They're being treated as public schools that are responsible and accountable."

There's new legislation at the state Capitol to extend that summer deadline for new authorizers.

Newly appointed Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius hasn't said whether she supports an extension. Her spokeswoman notes Cassellius is still getting up to speed on this and several other issues before the department.