When The Juniper School’s charter was approved by the Durango School District 9-R Board of Education in August, the budget included a $600,000 startup grant spread over three years. The school did not receive the grant.
“We were disappointed to hear that Juniper School was not awarded the Start Up Grant from the Colorado Department of Education,” 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger said. “We’ve reached out to the department for clarification, as previews done by the department’s consultant showed the application exceeded expectations prior to formal submission.”
The school’s application received 77 points, and the cutoff was 85 points, he said. The school had its application analyzed by a certified CDE reviewer several times before the official submission. While it was unusual, the reviewer told them how many points each version would receive. The lowest score was 86 points, which would have made the cut.
“They modified their proposal based on the CDE reviewer’s recommendations,” Snowberger said, “and their final version received more than 100 points. The CDE doesn’t have a process in place to review applications that fall below the cutoff, but I have asked them to take a look and make sure there were no errors.”
The school board’s approval of the charter with a five-year contract included discussion assuring board members that the district would not be responsible for any expenses until Juniper was in session, when the school would begin receiving a per-pupil allocation.
“We don’t have any money to give them because we’re already running at a deficit,” Snowberger said.
The 9-R District Advisory Accountability Committee had recommended against chartering the school three times since October 2014, because it had questions about financial viability, staffing, technology and professional development. The district’s staff elected to recommend approval of the contract with Durango Schools for Choice, the governing organization for Juniper, with a number of contingencies.
“I am positive that the 9-R school board would only approve a school charter application that has a balanced, healthy budget,” DAAC member Sue Lawton said in an email to Snowberger and Jackie Oros, chief student advocate for the district. “By not receiving the CDE startup grant, The Juniper School no longer meets this requirement. While 9-R and the community supports the idea of this school, we cannot move forward with a school that is a financial liability for 9-R. (As its authorizer, if the school fails, 9-R must take on its debts.)”
The school is currently running an online auction as a fundraiser. It was not clear Tuesday afternoon how failing to receive the grant would impact the proposed start date of August 2016 for classes.
“The impact may be on the scope of the opening,” Snowberger said. “They may open on a smaller scale, with fewer students or classes. I have seen charters open without a grant like this, but it’s tough.”
Gisele Pansze, a co-founder of public charter Animas High School and an education consultant, wrote an opinion piece for The Durango Herald in March advising the school board to postpone approval until the school’s plan was more solid. On Tuesday, she said she didn’t see how the school could open on time without the grant.
“They need that money to buy materials, furniture, computers,” she said, “and they need it soon.”
Lawton wondered if Juniper’s contract with 9-R is still valid.
“I’d like to understand what 9-R’s next steps are regarding The Juniper School,” she wrote in her email. “Receiving the CDE start up grant is a basic contingency for opening, and not receiving this grant must void the contract.”
The contract will probably need, at the very least, to be revised, Snowberger said.
“Our board president (Andy Burns) has met with their board president (Tammy Fraley),” he said. “We hope to know more by the (9-R) board meeting next week, and the board is planning to go into executive session to consider changes to the contract based on this CDE decision.”
More than 100 families have expressed interest in Juniper. Having the additional elementary slots in town would allow 9-R to reinstate open enrollment at Riverview, Needham and Park elementary schools, which means students from outside the schools’ designated residential boundaries could attend.
Fraley could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday night.