Karyl Ann Armbruster, left, who represents Los Alamos on the Public Education Commission, chats with fellow Commissioners Trish Ruiz and Tim Crone Tuesday afternoon prior to the Polaris Charter School hearing at UNM-LA. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Public Education Commissioners listen to a presentation by the Polaris Charter School committee Tuesday afternoon at UNM-LA. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Polaris Charter School committee member and Los Alamos School Board member Bill Hargraves chats with Aspen Elementary School Principal Michelle Altherr, a former member of the committee. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Los Alamos School Board secretary Jenny McCumber speaks before the Public Education Commission Tuesday afternoon at UNM-LA. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Members of the State Public Education Commission met at UNM-LA to receive public input regarding the proposed Polaris Charter School for children in sixth through eighth grade.
After the Polaris founding committee gave their presentation to the Commission, Los Alamos School Board member Jenny McCumber told Commission is concerned about the conflict of interested involved with Bill Hargraves, chair of the committee also being an member of the school board.
“This came up in a board meeting on Nov. 14, 2017. We discussed it as a school board as an agenda item. We also received legal advice from Cuddy & McCarthy, one of our law firms that gives us legal advice and while Mr. Hargraves is free as a citizen to work on the organizing of Polaris as an applicant and as a governing board member, I think there is a conflict of interest and I wanted to let commissioners know that and be aware,” McCumber said.
She said part of the issue is that the Commission is expecting the school district to give them objective feedback about what’s in the best interest of the students of Los Alamos.
“But when the superintendent of the school district supervised by one of the applicants of a charter school, that presents a problem in giving objective feedback to you. And what I would urge is that you would delay your decision, you would resolve the issue of the conflict and then allow LAPS to give objective feedback and have a time period for that,” McCumber said.
Commission Chair Patricia Gipson said the Commission has no statutory authority to delay its decision.
“We are obligated by statute to make a decision by Sept. 1, so we don’t have legal way to do that,” she said, adding that she was not engaging McCumber in conversation but just making her aware that the Commission has to abide by the statute and that the decision has to be made by Sept. 1.
LAPS Supt. Kurt Steinhaus began his slide presentation on behalf of the school district stating that he was presenting a “working draft” that had not been approved by the school board but that the board would be meeting Tuesday evening which was within the Commission’s three-day window for comments.
Although the school board had not voted on whether or not it supports the Polaris school, the district’s presentation did not show any kind of support for the application and Steinhaus seemed to be critical of both the Polaris committee and the process.
Steinhaus outlined the overarching approach to the proposed charter school saying the district will first focus on what is best for the students of Los Alamos and surrounding communities.
“There’ll be full cooperation and there’ll be good communication. The reason I think that’s important to put up there, is that’s not true with other charter schools around the state,” he said.
Steinhaus said what he was looking for when he read the Polaris application and what he was listening for when he heard the presentation was the word “student” and that it was never mentioned. He also claimed there was no reference to what’s so special about 6th, 7th and 8th graders.
“I was a music teacher when I was a middle school teacher and it’s a very important stage in a child’s life and you are charged as a Commission to make a very important decision about a student in a very vulnerable time in their life,” he said.
Steinhaus also told the Commission he has spent many hours at the Public Education Department and that there are a lot of misconceptions about Los Alamos.
“I want you to be very careful about your decision and not base it on misconception. I’ll give you an example. People talk about Los Alamos as a place where the kids are all math and science majors. That is not true. We have some of the strongest dance, art and music programs you will find anywhere in New Mexico and we are very proud of those,” he said.
Steinhaus also told the Commission that he worried that a body comes into Los Alamos and spends 2 ½ to 3 hours and is going to make a decision that’s going to “affect our whole town”.
“I’m really worried about that. I don’t think it’s enough time and I don’t think that the system that’s in place, set up by the legislature is fair to our kids. That’s why I’m here to talk about our kids,” he said.
Steinhaus said all across the state there is an inherent tension between charter schools and the school districts having to do with resources, facilities, transportation and federal programs.
“One thing I just learned about yesterday has to do with the State Finance Committee. They require school districts to give up facilities if they have them. We have a couple of facilities here. One of them is Little Forest, and it’s an early childhood center that used to be a school, and according to this state finance rule, the charter school could require us to evict that early childhood center and put the charter school in there and that just scares me,” he said.
Steinhaus said the other inherent tension is the school board is required by law to be a public body, to notice everything they do and to publish 72 hours ahead of time.
“The Polaris Charter School does not have that requirement and many of us including me in this room knew there was a group meeting but we had no idea. We weren’t invited to the meetings, we weren’t included, they didn’t come talk to us. There’s been one public meeting about this and we really worried about secret meetings going on that will impact the resources of our schools,” he said.
Steinhaus accused Polaris of wanting to focus on “a certain population of students” and said the lottery doesn’t allow them to do that. He noted that in the short time period since the Polaris application was submitted to the state, the feedback to him was “really bimodal”.
“People are really angry and frustrated and opposed or they’re really happy about the charter school. The more we look into it the more questions we get,” he said before running out of time.
Several members of the community spoke in favor of the proposed charter school including parents, educators and there were no community members who spoke against.
The LAPS presentation was not listed on the school board’s agenda for a vote at their Tuesday evening meeting or included in the published agenda package. The agenda item was “Discussion of Los Alamos Charter School Application” and the recommendation stated “School Board President Ellen Ben-Naim will facilitate the discussion of the Los Alamos Charter School Application with the School Board.”
Watch the Los Alamos Reporter page for more stories on the Polaris hearing and the school board meeting Tuesday evening.