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Districts deny charter schools

3 applications turned down in Alpine, Cache

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Rejection notices have been given to the first three applicants seeking approval to open charter schools under a new Utah law.

Alpine's Board of Education denied applications from Timpanogos Academy and John Hancock Charter School. Cache School District's school board also turned down an application to open the Thomas Edison charter school.

Under the new code, July 1 was the first day districts were required to entertain applications for new charter schools, which are public schools but are founded by parents and operate under contract with local school boards or the State Board of Education.

The updated version of the Utah Charter Schools Act that became effective this month states that districts may approve the number of charter schools that can accept up to 4 percent of the district's total enrollment.

But if districts decline to sponsor the schools — and thus not be forced to share resources — the applicants can appeal to the Utah Board of Education, which has 60 days to respond. The board can, according to the new law, approve four new charter schools.

And that's where they have landed. Steven Laing, state superintendent for public instruction, said Thursday the state school board will likely approve some charter-school applicants.

Eight Utah charter schools have run on pilot status since 1998. Each boasts a speciality, such as performing arts or environmental studies, but also must provide the same services as the state-funded schools in Utah's 40 districts.

Cache's Board of Education denied the Thomas Edison charter application because it would require the diversion of some $1.2 million it receives from the state to run schools. The money covers costs to teach 365 children, the charter's projected enrollment.

Such a loss would mean the district would reduce staff by about $748,000 and eliminate $504,000 in services now provided to the district's 13,000 students, Cache officials said.

"Present legislation provided insufficient funding to support charter schools while maintaining our current services," said Cache Superintendent Steven C. Norton in a statement when the application was rejected. "Therefore, until the appropriate funding is made available, we elect not to support the charter school proposal."

Jerri Mortensen, Alpine's spokeswoman, said the Utah County school board denied the applications because the district doesn't yet have guidelines by which to measure the proposals.

By law, districts have 45 days to deny or accept the applications. Instead of attempting to quickly write new policies, Alpine decided to reject them both and allow them to appeal to the state school board as soon as possible.

"It's not that we didn't want the schools," Mortensen said. "It's just that the applications were a little premature for us."

Michelle Smith, a founding member of the proposed Timpanogos Academy, said the rejection from Alpine was expected. There's no rancor about the decision, she said.

"They just haven't had time to get their policies in place," Smith said. "Alpine really has been very helpful to us."

Smith said the school, even if approved this year, won't open until next fall. The group needs to find a building, hire teachers and put finishing touches on curriculum, she said.

Laing worries about reaction from lawmakers if local boards continue to turn away charter school proposals.

Legislators could extend the authority to grant charters outside the school system, he said. Some states have charter school boards. Others allow universities to grant charters.

He wants the power to charter to remain in the public school system, where "public school students are better served."

Laing also is concerned that an application would be "rejected solely for financial reasons." He doubts legislators will ever give more money to districts with large numbers of students who attend charter schools.

"If the state board approves a charter school, the financial reasons are exactly the same as far as the impact on the local districts."

Contributing: Jennifer Toomer-Cook

E-mail: jeffh@desnews.com