SDUHSD denies proposed charter school

The San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) denied the application for the proposed new SOUL Charter School in Encinitas in a 4-0 vote on Oct. 13. The board had a chance to deny or to approve the school with conditions but after conversations with their legal representative Procopio and the California Charter School Association, SOUL decided to decline the conditional approval option, leaving the board only the option to deny the application.

“There were a variety of reasons that went into this decision but essentially it would put us in a state of limbo without a clear path to opening,” SOUL co-founder Michael Grimes said. “The conditions were not measurable, quantifiable conditions that could be definitely met. The district could have easily drawn out the process through April, preventing us from opening in 2017.”

“It was an incredibly difficult decision in which we gave great thought and consideration. After weighing all outcomes and possibilities, we are confident that we made the right choice,” Grimes said.

SOUL will now begin the appeal process with the San Diego County Board of Education, where a charter has not been approved in years. Grimes said a lot will depend on how the county board election turns out in November but he believes the board is “finally on the verge of becoming pro-charter.”

If not approved at the county, Grimes still believes SOUL has a chance to be approved at the state level.

SDUHSD Interim Superintendent Eric Dill said the district’s findings and conditions were “quite lengthy.” Staff identified numerous areas of concern with the petition, particularly with respect to the educational program, the budget, lack of an appropriate facility, governance and other miscellaneous elements. As such they could not recommend an unconditional approval of the petition.

“Nobody at all, from one end to another at this table, would question your passion, your interest and your desire to get this school going. I don’t think that is at question at all,” Dill told the applicants. “We did do a very thorough analysis of the petition and we feel that all of that is within the scope of what we’ve been asked to do.”

Per the district’s report on the petition, SOUL presented an “unrealistic financial and operational plan”; noting: “They appear to lack the necessary background in education administration and leadership that is critical to effectively operate a charter school.”

The district was looking for a more comprehensive and accurate list of start-up costs, competitive salaries and health benefits, costs of books and supplies and budgeted expenses that account for SOUL’s plan to provide musical instruments and cameras to students, after-school tutoring, monthly workshops for parent/guardians that are free of charge, such as yoga and cooking classes.

In its curriculum offerings, the district wanted to see a more comprehensive description of the educational program. Concerns included how SOUL would address English learners and students with disabilities, key metrics used to monitor student progress, the extent to which the school would offer elective college prep courses such as world languages and visual-performing arts and an assurance that SOUL’s plan for course sequencing in math and science would be in alignment for students who may transfer from SOUL to a district school.

Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Michael Grove said it was difficult to assess the educational component because he didn’t feel there was enough information in the petition to confidently say it would work.

“When we read the findings, we were surprised,” Grimes said, noting there were elements of the findings that they understood and respected, however, some seemed to be “over-reaching.”

Miles Durfee, managing regional director for California Charter Schools Association, said he was concerned that SDUHSD’s action of “conditional approval” is not consistent with the law. He encouraged the board to instead approve SOUL’s petition and resolve any issues through a memorandum of understanding.

“Conditional authorization is not something that we made up,” Dill said, noting it is a structure used by other school districts and the district’s opinion is that it is both legal and sound. “We felt that there was enough there in our findings that it could warrant a denial, however, we thought that if we wanted to give SOUL an opportunity, a way to cure those deficiencies in the petition would be a conditional authorization.”

Co-founder Marisa Bruyneel argued that she believes their petition was well-thought out, sound and comprehensive.

Bruyneel said they have not deviated from the Common Core State Standards and all students would graduate prepared for college. She said SOUL’s core sequences and math program mirror that of San Dieguito’s to ensure transferability and that foreign language, visual arts and other college prep courses will be offered. With regard to special education and the needs of all learners, Bruyneel said that they have worked with experts in the field to create a program that thoroughly addresses the needs of all students.

“We have provided countless reasons to approve us,” Bruyneel said. “Saying yes to SOUL is saying yes to possibility, to opportunity, innovation and collaboration. It would be a great disservice to deny an entire community of their right to choose an amazing educational option.”

Tom Nichols, from the Charter School Management Corporation, the back-office service provider for charter schools, also responded to questions about the budget and said he was confident in SOUL’s ability to succeed.

Besides the financial component, the board members’ largest concerns were the educational curriculum. They voted unanimously to deny (with trustee John Salazar absent) as it was their only option.

“There’s 10 pages of items that are concerning,” said SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer. “We heard from you things you think can solve but that leaves a lot of questions still for me…I’m not comfortable if we can’t put conditions on (an approval).”

Despite the denial, the SOUL co-founders will carry on — as Bruyneel said, it has become her life’s work to open a school that creates a new educational paradigm.

“With a team like ours that has heart, passion, discipline and extensive experience, we will succeed. That is a guarantee,” she told the board. “Next year, when we open our doors, we hope you’ll be standing with us in unity.”