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Santa Rosa’s first charter school faces possible closure

(KENT PORTER/ PD FILE, 2013)

JEREMY HAY , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa’s first charter school has survived four moves since it was founded in 1995, most recently from the Hilliard Comstock Middle School campus to two large halls at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Now, as administrators seek another space, its back is against the wall.

The Santa Rosa Education Cooperative — it includes a preschool, child care center and school — is set to lose its fairgrounds space at the end of this school year. Its lease expires, the space is unsuitable for longterm use and administrators were unable to reach a deal for a permanent space at the fairgrounds.

Without some kind of support from the Santa Rosa City Schools district, which helped it get started two decades ago with a loan, it could mean the end of the kindergarten-through-eighth grade school.

“It just might be,” said Pam Lee, a school founder and current board member.

Santa Rosa’s school board is to take up the charter school issue Wednesday. Two weeks ago, school supporters made an emotional case to the board that the charter school is a valuable part of the city’s educational ecosystem that the district, as it has before, should get behind.

In 1995, besides the loan to the charter school, the district allowed it to operate outside the Santa Rosa Elementary district for a year, contrary to its charter agreement.

“They were willing to take risks and go outside their comfort zone and do whatever they could to help us get started,” Chris Peterson, another founder and board member, said Tuesday. “We’re hoping that going forward they are again willing to think outside the box and work with us.”

The charter school is part of the Santa Rosa district but an independent charter, as opposed to a dependent one. That means it has a more arms-length relationship with the school district — it is not bound by the union contract and it can set its own curriculum — which would otherwise be obligated to find it new quarters.

But the district only has to provide space to an independent charter once it has 80 students from within the Santa Rosa district, and then it is only obligated to find space for the in-district students. Currently, fewer than 50 of the school’s 117 students — who come from 15 different school districts — come from Santa Rosa, Lee said.

Charter school officials have identified four sites within the Santa Rosa district where they would like to move to from the fairgrounds, where they have been located for a year.

One site is Lewis School, on Steele Lane, now occupied by the Charter School for the Arts, which is there while its Humboldt Street campus is renovated.

Piner High School and Comstock and Lawrence Cook middle schools are the other sites that school officials are proposing.

Headed into the Wednesday meeting, however, school district staff have drawn a discouraging picture of those options.

Work on the Humboldt Street campus is behind schedule because of winter rains, which may delay the Arts Charter’s move out, district staff said in a report to the board. Also, the district may need to use the site for other programs.

None of the other sites has adequate facilities for the charter school — which would like 18 classrooms — and creating those would cost at least $2.4 million from the $54 million elementary school bond that voters approved in 2014, the staff said in its report.

Lee said that it could be accomplished for less because the charter school’s needs could be reduced to 13 classrooms. And the district, she said, when it expands its programs, could take over that space while the charter school moves onto a permanent location.

The Lewis campus would work, Peterson said, because the charter school is flexible enough that it could wait until the Arts Charter School moves out, even if that is later than the August start of school, before starting its 2016-2017 academic year.

The school board hasn’t set the charter school as a priority for bond money, but it could if it chose to allot some of those funds to the charter school, said Anna Guzman, Santa Rosa City Schools assistant superintendent.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay