The RE-1 Board of Education stopped short of revoking the school’s charter at its board meeting on Tuesday night, but Superintendent Lori Haukeness said the district would send the charter school a formal letter that claims breach of contract.
Five RE-1 board members said they wanted to give the school more time.
As the authorizing authority, RE-1 may revoke the CKMS charter. The charter school contract is a legally binding document between RE-1 and CKMS that stipulates legal requirements regarding enrollment, finances, staffing and operations.
“The reality is that it is a breach of contract,” Haukeness said.
After the breach of contract letter is sent, Haukeness said CKMS will have 60 days to come up with a plan to come back into compliance with the contract. Haukeness said the February deadline would allow newly appointed CKMS’ Interim Head of School Jon Orris, who has 10 years of experience at a charter school, to turn the school around and secure a permanent facility.
At the RE-1 board meeting on Feb. 19, board members will review the charter school’s response to the breach of contract letter. If the RE-1 board finds CKMS is in compliance, the school will stay open. If not, Haukeness said the RE-1 board could take a vote to revoke the CKMS charter.
If the school board votes to revoke the charter, the CKMS Board of Directors would have 30 days to file an appeal with the Colorado State Board of Education. That board would then hear arguments from both sides and have 60 days to issue a final ruling. Haukeness said that would bring the timeline up to May, the end of the school year.
“The assumption was that if students need to transfer, at semester would be the best time to transfer students,” Haukeness said. “Parents feel that they would like to have as much of the academic year with the Kiva charter as possible.”
Emotions on displayThe decision to issue the breach of contract letter on Tuesday came after nearly an hour of public comment from the dozens of CKMS parents and students packed into the boardroom and opinions from the seven RE-1 board members.
Wright and RE-1 board Director Jack Schuenemeyer expressed mixed emotions about the school, and directors Sheri Noyes, Tammy Hooten, Kara Suckla, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk and Lance McDaniel stated they want to “give them a chance” or “give them more time.”
Lopez-Whiteskunk said the charter school’s finances have put the RE-1 board in a difficult position.
“It’s not just based on emotion, it’s not just based on academics, it’s also based on that hard dollar amount that makes it very difficult to make this decision,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said.
Schuenemeyer spoke of the poor academic performance at CKMS. He said he recently spoke to someone who worked at the charter school who had concerns about the percentage of students who were not performing at grade level and the lack of effort to increase academic rigor.
“Getting students into middle school or high school who are one or two grade levels behind is a disservice to the students,” Schuenemeyer said.
McDaniel said he was concerned with finances and the delay in action from the CKMS community. He said he’s heard from Kiva parents that then-Head of School Susan Likes was not responding to the needs of parents, and he now wonders why these issues weren’t on anyone’s radar two years ago.
“I want to give them more time too, I do, but I don’t how we can — I don’t know what the limit is,” McDaniel said.
During the public comment period, elementary students read handwritten letters to the school board. One student stated that she didn’t understand the “adult stuff” and just wanted her school to stay open. Several parents stated they would home-school their children if CKMS closed or they would enroll in other charter schools.
“Forcing us out of our school will not increase your enrollment, but instead create animosity,” CKMS parent Emily Wisner said.
Other parents blamed Likes and other former school officials for the school’s predicament but urged the RE-1 board to recognize there is new leadership and new opportunity.
Concerns from the districtBefore the RE-1 board meeting on Tuesday, Haukeness and Carol Mehesy, RE-1 charter school liaison and director of school improvement, invited CKMS parents to an informational meeting on Monday night. The two district administrators detailed four main concerns with CKMS: enrollment, financial sustainability, academic achievement and operational instability.
On enrollment, Mehesy explained that education funding in Colorado is based on a student headcount in October. A student in grades one through 12 is equal to one full-time equivalent student, and a kindergarten student is equal to approximately one-half of one FTE.
Over the past five years, CKMS has averaged about 102 FTE. As of Dec. 7, 2018, enrollment was down to 73.5 FTE. On Sept. 12, RE-1 realized enrollment at the charter school was low and requested a revised budget from the CKMS board.
Based on that revised budget, Mehesy said CKMS needs an enrollment of 98 FTE to break even. Assuming the best-case scenario — if no additional students leave CKMS, all kindergarten students stay at the charter school and a comparable kindergarten class enrolls next year — Mehesy said CKMS could have an enrollment of 90 FTE. That would still leave CKMS with a budget deficit of $42,780 for the 2019-2020 school year.
“That’s why enrollment is so important, and that’s why it’s so closely tied to your financial sustainability, and that’s why we’re so concerned about talking about it with you all,” Mehesy said.
Enrollment at CKMS dipped the week of Nov. 7, when the CKMS board informed parents that the school building would close because of concerns about asbestos exposure and the school would move back to temporary classrooms at Crow Canyon Archaeology Center. She said another enrollment drop occurred after a pair of articles published in The Journal on Nov. 29 detailed financial sustainability concerns.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the things that we’re talking about this fall really originated last year in decisions that were made and academic data that surfaced,” Mehesy said.
On top of a drop in enrollment, Mehesy said a large facility cost increase has contributed to financial instability. CKMS in the 2015-2016 school year paid $36,000 in facilities costs, which jumped to $63,600 in 2017-2018. The revised 2019-2020 budget sets the facilities cost at $162,000, at 350 percent increase in facility costs over five years. The increase comes as revenue declines.
Mehesy said CKMS operated on revenues of $1 million when it opened during the 2015-2016 school year, with help from starting grants and a loan, but revenue for the 2019-2020 school year shows projected revenue of $830,800, a 19 percent decrease in total revenue over five years.
“It starts to eat up a bigger and bigger chunk of that, and that reduces your flexibility around enrollment and variation in cost and things like that even more,” Mehesy said.
Academic performance at CKMS is significantly lower than the district’s test scores in language arts and math. Among elementary students at the K-8 charter school in 2017-2018, 43 percent did not meet expectations in language arts compared with 23 percent in district schools. In math, 46 percent of CKMS elementary students did not met expectations compared with 26 percent in district schools.
“In looking at this, there really needs to be a support structure for these students on how to catch these students up,” Haukeness said.
The fourth concern is operational stability. Students at the charter school have experienced several sudden facility moves this year — with construction and asbestos issues — that resulted in lost instructional time, a loss of trust among parents and increased stress levels for students.
Mehesy said there are other behind-the-scenes concerns regarding “basic systems” like human resources, accounting, health systems and student records.
“Those type of things that indicate to us that maybe there hasn’t been the strongest management in the past,” Mehesy said.
The day before RE-1 moved to issue the breach of contract letter, former CKMS Interim Head of School Alexia Hudson-McGrath spoke at a CKMS board meeting on Monday.
Hudson-McGrath said she was a founding committee member of CKMS, but this year her family decided to transition their daughter out of the charter school and into Montezuma-Cortez Middle School for academic reasons.
“After countless times of interface with the former head of school, I never saw academic performance, and the transition was precipitated by my daughter, who has been a Montessori student since she was 2½ years old,” Hudson-McGrath said.
She suggested that the CKMS board has not been true to the school’s mission and vision statement.
“I just want to be sure that if you’re going to continue that you take this mission and vision to heart,” Hudson-McGrath said. “And if you don’t, then please change the mission and vision.”