District addresses Compass concerns at School Board meeting

The charter with Compass is the first ever authorized by Winters JUSD. Statewide scrutiny of charter schools has revealed some unethical practices, such as small districts authorizing sub-par charters as a revenue source, something district staff and board members hoped to avoid by reducing three-percent oversight fee to one percent, a rate more in line with its duties considering Compass will not be using any brick-and-mortar facilities. 
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Photo by Crystal Apilado/Winters Express

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For the first time, Winters Joint Unified School District staff publicly addressed concerns over the  authorization of Compass Charter Schools during an agenda item to approve a memorandum of understanding defining the district’s oversight responsibilities and relationship with Compass.

Superintendent Todd Cutler and Chief Business Officer Karen Peters told board members that they had vetted Compass independently and are satisfied despite denials of charter petitions by other districts.

Compass faced public scrutiny in Fresno, Monterey and Alameda Counties and was ultimately denied three petitions to renew its authorization or merge with failing charter schools, although the denials occurred after Winters JUSD authorized the Southern-California based organization to open a Yolo County branch of its online charter program in April.

Cutler explained to the board how the petition came to Winters JUSD, why staff recommended it and how they plan to avoid any potential ethical concerns raised by other educational governance bodies after a member of the public referenced an article published by this newspaper July 17.

While the member of the public said that the article’s coverage was negative, Cutler spoke to the Express after the meeting to say he didn’t find the coverage negative and was glad the controversy, all of which came to light after the district independently vetted Compass and the board voted to authorize its charter, was brought up publicly.

Cutler reiterated staff didn’t search out Compass, and saw no reason to deny the petition.

“In current law, you basically have to have something that you can justify why you would deny,” Cutler said.

Cutler said he thinks the agreement with Compass is fair and will allow for a partnership with the district that benefits Winters students.

“We talked about how if we charter them we can have a good partnership, and in the next meeting we’ll talk about students already enrolled in summer school and, in future meetings, about coursework our students will have access to. This seems to be a possible partnership, when usually they’re not partnerships,” Cutler said.

Peters, who has done most of the independent vetting of Compass, said a lot of the suspicion around Compass was due to accusations against a larger conglomerate of charter schools it was previously tied to, Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAS).

“I’ve dug in even more since our approval,” Peters said. “People started asking questions [about AAS] about four years ago, which was when Compass broke from AAS and started over, basically. I’m comfortable that Compass left as soon as questions started being raised.”

In an interview with the Express, Peters said that she looked closely at budget materials again and was initially concerned about some of the numbers behind funding mechanism for the Compass Charter School of Yolo’s estimated $5 million budget for the 2019-2020 school year, but was satisfied with the answers she received. Her questions were on budget items like potentially inflated Average Daily Attendance (ADA) numbers, which determine state funding, and may be amended as the academic year progresses.

As a point of reference, Winters JUSD’s projected funding for the 2019-2020 school year is about $15.5 million.

According to Peters, if Compass fails to meet academic standards, it will face reduced state funding just as any other public school would.

Peters emphasized that there are positives to this charter deal, despite negative publicity, especially in the variety of coursework offered to Winters students. “We think this is a unique opportunity for our little community that our students are going to be offered some electives we can’t normally offer. I think that’s an important piece of this,” Peters said.

Cutler and Peters also said the reduction of the district’s oversight fee from three percent to one percent—from about $150,000 annually to $50,000 annually—will avoid any ethical concerns about using Compass as a revenue source, as some small districts are accused of doing at the cost of true oversight.

“Some of the schools getting in trouble are smaller districts that are looking at them as a revenue resource, so they might be chartering eight schools,” Peters said. “Suddenly, they’re not doing the proper oversight.”

Board members said this change, which was agreed upon by Cutler and Compass CEO JJ Lewis, is also more fair to Compass, which won’t use any brick-and-mortar facilities.

Board President Rob Warren said he hadn’t heard anything negative about Compass Charter Schools, although he has been educating himself on charter school law and following groups actively criticizing charter schools. Warren agreed the reduction of the oversight fee was a positive step to ensure the district only authorizes this charter in compliance with state law, and not as a source of revenue.

“Sounds like we’re on the right track, trying to do things legitimately.” Warren said.

Trustee Carrie Green was also surprised to hear about concerns over Compass, and expressed some discomfort in the arrangement, which has been a done-deal since the authorization in April.

“I’m less comfortable with it now. I haven’t gotten any of the emails or heard anything about it. This is the first I’m hearing about the problems,” Green said.

After the discussion, the board voted unanimously to approve the Memorandum of Understanding with Compass, a one-year agreement outlining the district’s terms with the charter school, independent of its five-year authorization. If Compass doesn’t meet the state educational code, it will lose state funding like any other public school. Winters JUSD can re-evaluate the MOU, including the oversight fee, in one year and can deny reauthorization in five years if not satisfied with Compass’s performance.

The Compass charter is the first ever authorized by Winters JUSD.

Recent high-profile indictments, like that of Sean McManus, a former employee of Academy of Arts and Sciences who defrauded the state of $81 million through his new charter organization A3, as well as criticism by public education organizations like the California Teachers Association (CTA) have caused the state to review the statewide charter school system and impose new regulations.

California was the second state to incorporate charter schools into its public school system with the California Charter School Act of 1992, which hoped to fill gaps in public education by providing more options as well as innovation through publicly-funded, privately-run charter schools.

For instance, the Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis, opened in 2004, exemplified the innovative nature of charter schools by pioneering a computer-based learning program a decade before laptops became par-for-the-course in public school classrooms.

Much of the criticism Compass faced was due to its online-only platform. The Millennium Charter High School in Salinas had a hands-on Digital Media Arts focus that could not be replicated online. The Monterey County Office of Education said—in what independent news source Berkeleyside called a “scathing” report— that one of the reasons it denied Compass’s petition to merge with Millennium was a failure to demonstrate how the online charter school would manage to meet this educational standard.

The Berkeley Unified School District similarly questioned Compass for not revealing its charter had been denied for reauthorization by the Fresno County Office of Education in January due to substandard academic results. It also questioned how and why Compass was interested in absorbing $1.5 million in financial obligations facing its R.E.A.L.M. charter school, questioning the corporation’s motives ahead of a pending two-year state moratorium on new online charters.

In a recent interview with The Express, Compass CEO JJ Lewis defended his organization’s academic program and said the denials were based on subjective interpretations of the petitions, not on what Compass actually offers. He also said Fresno County’s denial to renew over lower test scores compared to traditional students was due to a one-year dip and the fact that some students may enroll in an online charter school because they are behind their peers academically. Per state law, charter schools must at least meet the educational standards of traditionally educated students in the district in order to maintain authorization.

Compass makes an effort to distinguish itself as an open and transparent organization. On its website, it posts Local Accountability Plans (LCAPs), agendas and minutes from its Board of Directors and budget information.

Currently, about 40 students are enrolled in Compass Charter of Yolo.

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