Our View: Charter schools need better oversight

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Call to readers;

Do you think charter schools are good for public education? Tell us why or why not.
Please share your thoughts via one of the addresses.

Include your first and last name, city you live in, a daytime phone number, and be limited to 250 words or less.

Mail letters:  P.O. Box 5910,  Auburn Journal Auburn, CA 95604
Drop off:  1030 High Street
Fax: (530) 887-1231

What do $800,000 and a $19 million charter school have to do with us?
These are taxpayer monies paid into the state’s education system that have partly gone to waste.
The Journal recently ran a five-part series focused on Horizon Charter Schools, which has been in operation since 1993 and has two programs at a site in Auburn and formerly had sites in Lincoln and Rocklin.
In doing the series, it became clear that the flexibility given to charter schools can come at a cost, and the lack of oversight with regard to Horizon’s finances is troubling. The series took a topic of state importance – there are more than 1,000 charter schools in the state with 110 opening in the last school year alone – and gave Auburn area and Placer County taxpayers a snap shot of how it’s impacting our local education system.
Our local education leaders should take the financial strife of Horizon’s $2 million budget gap as a reminder to pay close attention to charter schools in their district. Western Placer Unified School District administrators need to step up their oversight of Horizon Charter Schools and carefully scrutinize their charter when it comes up for renewal this spring.
Charter schools have become a popular and fast growing movement in California public education since they were allowed to start in 1993. Parents are drawn to the flexibility in curriculum, among other benefits.  
The downside to charter schools is they pull enrollment from already existing public schools, which translates into less money for those institutions. Also, as is the case with Horizon, the flexibility has led to problems.
“(There is) a mild pulling at each other trying to balance those two extremes (of oversight and flexibility). That’s what the charter movement is all about. It really is,” Scott Leaman, Western Placer Unified School District superintendent told the Journal. “They are meant to push the envelope programmatically, but sometimes to do that, there are reasons why many of the policies are in place in traditional schools, and that’s where some of the challenges I think come in with the charter movement.”
But Western Placer is responsible for ensuring Horizon is financially compliant and maintains education standards. There shouldn’t be a laissez-faire approach when it comes to upholding those duties.
In Horizon’s case, the school’s Rocklin site closed mid-school year and left the parents of more than 300 students without a school for their children to attend. The site was closed after neighbors complained to Placer County about too much traffic there. The county then informed Horizon it was way past the building’s daily 200-student capacity. Horizon then closed the location and a few weeks later, the program it was operating out of the facility was shut down.  
Horizon and its leasing company dispute who’s at fault.
In addition to the sudden closure, Horizon sunk $800,000 of public money into upgrades to the building they were renting.
Regardless of who is to blame, the point is that it should never have happened.
The school’s finances should not have been allowed to get to the point of a $2 million budget gap by the overseeing district and then shut down to the detriment of students and parents.
Charter schools offer an option to taxpaying parents, but they come with a need for great responsibility from parents and the school district’s charged with oversight.
It’s also important to remember that in the rush to create and grow these specialized schools, we cannot forget about investing in our already existing public schools. Districts that are looking to include charters should weigh what kind of repercussions that could have to their current students, staff and school sites. If it would hurt enrollment and programs available, the district should not OK a charter.
We can’t let the desire for flexibility overshadow the need to judicially use and guard public money, especially with a K-12 education system that receives more than 40 percent of the state’s general fund.