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North Branch Schools

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August 23, 2019

8/8/2019 3:04:00 PM
Phoenix Academy retains sponsor organization; North Branch charter school looks toward 2019-20

It’s a brave new day for a local charter school that few observers would have placed bets on it seeing a second year.  

Phoenix Academy in North Branch has shed its executive director and most of the early School Board members,  and recently Phoenix got the  reprieve it was hoping for from its sponsoring organization, The MN Guild of Charter Schools.  

The Guild placed the site on a conditional “intervention status” after monitoring it closely the last several months.

The 140-student (last year’s enrollment) charter school is working its way out of major financial and personnel hurdles.  

Delinquent bills are still being caught up on, and the school continues talking with North Branch Trinity Church on forgiving some of last year’s unpaid lease.  For 2019-2020, according to the Board Chair, the fiscal plan is to dedicate the $148,482 annual lease aid funding from the state and make sure a school match is budgeted.

Charter schools get state taxpayer money and are tuition free in Minnesota.

None of last year’s trials and tribulations were discussed at the “meet the prinicpal” event held Monday night this week.  New principal/executive director James Gagner spoke a little about himself and took questions.  

Phoenix Academy is also holding an “Open House” August 27 and Ice Cream Social August 14 for returning families or anyone interested in learning more.  The school is still accepting pupils for this fall.

Enrollment is one area that most education administrators would prefer to have nailed-down by now for the coming year.   Gagner said teacher assignments are waiting to see what enrollment numbers are and for which grades.  Teaching staff introduced themselves at the meet-the-prinicpal event.

Gagner told the families gathered that staff are dedicated and have shown they want to do right for the school and students.  Charter schooling in Minnesota is a “choice,” he continued, and the instructors have chosen to be involved with Phoenix Academy; just as the parents are choosing an alternative learning environment for their child.

Along with budgeting, another of the stipulations for the MN Guild sustaining its sponsorship is a “plan” for transportation.

Phoenix Academy’s former administration missed a state deadline for eligibility for North Branch public school busing services.  Gagner said he submitted “a formal request” to be on a North Branch school board agenda soon to discuss busing services again.

Phoenix Academy’s new Board Chair Jarrod Hamlin, in a letter to the Guild, said there’s still hope for transportation via North Branch schools.  He wrote, “North Branch School District was treated poorly from a relationship standpoint.” and that he and new academy director/principal Gagner (who started July 1) will continue to make overtures to North Branch officials.  

Three buses would be required to provide academy enrollees with transportation and each is a direct $50,000 expense to the school, Hamlin estimated. (State charter school transportation funds match that.)

Gagner assured visiting families at this week’s program that he expects some fiscal challenges.  Building a reserve account is important and when you are a new facility that’s hard to do.  He ran a K-8 school in Big Stone and he says he’s up for the task ahead.

“I love the small school concept,” he continued. “Small group learning is where it’s at.”  And, although he shifted gears from 15 years of teaching the first grade, and going  into administration he still finds himself in classrooms, he said.  There’s something magnetic about the experiences youngsters have learning something for the first time.

School Board Chair Hamlin wrote to the MN Guild that the academy views this coming year as a make or break opportunity.  The charter school wants “...one more year to make the right choices to follow the laws and continue to help these children renew their love of learning,” Hamlin explained.

Of the changing culture at the academy Hamlin said there will be “transparency and humility.”

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