3/14/2019 4:14:00 PM Local charter school reassures parents Phoenix Academy laying a plan
Members of the school board for the local charter school, Phoenix Academy, put on their game faces; wrestling with a meeting agenda last week they clearly would rather not to be dealing with.
Phoenix Academy is funded by the taxpayers of Minnesota. It also uses federal charter school program funding for Title 1 and other mandated, targeted programs. Phoenix Academy, housed in trinity Lutheran Church, North Branch, is half-way through its first year. It has 113 students in K-grade 5.
The word “experiential” has a prominent place in vision and mission statements, and the administration and Board members are certainly experiencing an education. Phoenix Academy is under notice from the Minnesota’s Dept of Education (MDE) of statutory operating debt status, and the state has received complaints/concerns about fiscal, staffing and operational issues.
Its charter sponsoring organization--the MN Guild of Charter Schools-- notified Phoenix Academy it is “intervening” under a formal process in the sponsorships agreement. The MN Guild wrote in a letter January 31 that “...the issues are serious. and require immediate attention...failure to meet the requirements...may result in additional intervention by the MN Guild up to and including termination of Phoenix Academy’s charter contract per MN Statute 124E.10.”
Yet, Phoenix Academy Board Chair Dr. Kathy Mortensen, of Cambridge, explained to those attending the Board meeting February 26 that “...allegations are easy to make, it doesn’t make them true.”
She optimistically prodded Board members through actions that show a commitment to the future-- among them adopting a 2019-2020 calendar. She facilitated a discussion on drafting a job description for determining if there will be an on-staff versus an outside contractor as executive director next year.
The Board went through a detailed list of state and Guild concerns, as MN Guild Executive Director Cindy Murphy followed on speaker phone, adding comment and direction.
The Board only recently got up to its required number, appointing a teacher from the academy in late January. The bylaws called for five minimum and nine maximum to serve on the Board. No parents serve at this time. A formal policy to apply and how the vacancies are announced, etc. will be on the school website by July 2019.
A dozen or so visitors heard about improvements to public records availability, which the Board is in the process of implementing in response to Open Meeting Law short-comings.
A first-ever Board secretary was chosen last week. Member Caitlin King will take minutes and post them on the school website.
The “Governance Committee” which consists of one Board member, Kara Kerr, also needs some attention. Chair Mortensen stated she was thrilled multiple parents expressed interest in being involved in Board activities and said inclusivity will continue to be enhanced and input brought in. Parents can apparently apply to be on the Board, but policy to seat them is still being worked on.
According to the chair, the school is “on track” to get out of statutory operating debt by June 30, the end of this fiscal year. A handout showed the school owed $175,712 at year-end 2018. This has been reduced using a credit card and line-of credit (contingent on anticipated state and federal grants) and is down to $37,362 owed.
Past due rental payments to North Branch Trinity Lutheran Church, where the academy is based, will be current in March, Mortensen reported.
Academy marketing tools had promised an “arts and sciences” integrated curriculum. The Board heard this is being fulfilled, gradually. It was reported at the Board meeting that science lesson kits are on order. The executive director commented, “As far as I know all grades have math and language arts.”
Chair Mortensen added, “We don’t dispute that robotics (equipment and guitars) were not purchased.”
Two employees in the food service program are now attending required food handling training, it was also reported. A third person who was knowledgeable about federal food reimbursement aid was fired. The academy missed food program reimbursement deadlines, the Guild pointed out in its listed concerns.
The current nutrition program is being reviewed for potentially being served by North Branch School District’s private contractor. This would allow Phoenix Academy to receive the same menus served at the public schools; plus meal prepayments, PIN numbers and family accounts will funnel (ideally) through North Branch.
The 2019-2020 charter school enrollment window was set to close this week.
The Board agreed to review enrollment numbers and decide-- at the March 26 or its late April meeting-- if the lone executive director position will be retained; or if the school principal post would be reinstated and two administrative slots budgeted next year.
The existing executive director’s interim agreement cuts him loose end of June 2019.
Enrollment must support two administrators, however, the Board agreed. The goal is 160 students for next year.
Charter schools in Minnesota get per-pupil basic state aid equivalent to what public schools receive.
The executive director “released the school’s principal from employment” January 25, reportedly as a budget reduction measure.
The termination was handled in a manner “inconsistent with Board bylaws,” the MN Guild sponsoring group advised. (ie: it altered the organizational chart without prior review) Then, a recent compensation request from the director, basically negating savings from not paying the principal, got some parents riled-up.
In public comment at the Board session last week five people spoke about these issues.
Apparently, the academy’s hiring process is not admired either.
A close relative of the director’s was given a job in start-up, and the Board was told she was one of only two qualified applicants. The executive director stated last week, this was a “mistake” and said he shouldn’t have been involved.
The Guild also inquired into how the mandatory background checks work.
The executive director’s criminal, employment and legal history was either not authorized and/or was years-old. Board Chair Mortensen reported that since this was brought up, the director has provided his own backgrounding report to the Board. Amazingly, members agreed that this was resolved.
Executive Director Dr. Carlo Galeazzi, who has experience with other science and arts charters, was brought on as a “volunteer” to help get the beleaguered academy up and running. Its first planned location fell through, opening was delayed a year, and the school was down-sized.
An initial Phoenix Academy charter school public start-up grant provided $18,000 for his services.
Dr. Galeazzi is now seeking health insurance monthly coverage and $33,000. The hitch is that a volunteer doesn’t qualify under the school’s health insurance coverage, and Board members were not unanimous right now on any monetary compensation.
Board member Pastor Kevin Haseltine, remarked that he and Galeazzi had some friction originally. He said, Galeazzi first planned the school to be based at Haseltine’s North Branch church, west of the freeway. The school was permitted by the city council, but never came to fruition. The pastor said Galeazzi spent church money which “...we never got reimbursed for,” and he used space for free meetings and storage, adding there was a negative impression of the academician. But, Pastor Haseltine continued, the need for a small school to serve unique needs of children in the North Branch area was such a passion of his he overlooked Galeazzi’s rough edges, and now the pastor is happily serving on the Phoenix Academy Board.
The Board did not act on the compensation request nor did it approve the health insurance coverage, lacking a more formal employment or outside contractor agreement. The $33,000 compensation or “performance pay” as it was described-- hinges on what, if any, balance the school might have in the bank at the end of June.
There is a more defined interim executive director job guideline in place, for the rest of the school year.
Board member King, a teacher at Phoenix Academy, stated the obvious declaring she was feeling uncomfortable with voting on compensation for basically her boss.
Mortensen asked if any of those who spoke in the early part of the Board meeting agenda had follow-up concerns. One or two agreed to be contacted and speak privately with a Board member later, and one parent said he had heard that night what he hoped he would hear.