Lebanon School Board Meeting: Sand Ridge Charter School

Continued, basically, from last night’s post… only this one is really, really long.

Part Six: Sand Ridge (the battle of Sand Ridge?)

Up until this point, the entire board, including Rick Alexander, had been getting along fairly well both between themselves and with the D.O. staff. Bear that mind.

There were officially three items on the agenda that dealt with Sand Ridge: The Administration’s Report, the “Notice of Intent on Renewal” and something titled “Determine Renewal Status of Sand Ridge or Set Meeting to Do So.”

Perhaps a little complex, but nothing too crazy.

Sprenger started off by noting the three agenda items and proposed that they start with the Admin Report and follow with a discussion. No one objected.

Robinson, rather than go through everything himself, broke down the report and had various people cover their respective sections. He went first.

Robinson:

He covered the remarks made at the public hearing. There were lots and lots of positive comments about Sand Ridge, which he applauded. My favorite: “the only option for students who are struggling elsewhere.” (Possible translation: Have been expelled from other district schools.)

There were also lots of negative comments from the public hearing about the district as the “enemy,” which he deplored (and rightly so). He was very clear about wanting to get to the root of that perception and correct it by building relationships between the Sand Ridge and LCSD communities. Unlike other times I’ve seen him try to be generous and welcoming, I thought this was very, very genuine. (Apparently Robinson is a fan of charter schools, so this makes sense.)

Robinson ended his remarks about Sand Ridge with the line “Sand Ridge must – it must – continue to operate.” He was, frankly, passionate and fired up. I’d never seen him like that in a board meeting.

At that point, he shifted gears, noting that the district had “major and significant issues” with PIE. (While he did not elaborate, his staff later did.) Robinson then alluded to a list of nine recommendations his staff had developed that he wanted the board to choose from and that would be presented at the end of the admin report.

Steve Kelley:

Kelley talked about the history the district had with Sand Ridge and PIE in terms of the district trying to ensure that Sand Ridge complied with the terms of the contract between PIE and the LCSD. Basically, he went over a timeline of instances and ways in which PIE had failed to respond (literally not returning phone calls or emails) to LCSD concerns regarding both compliance with state law and the contract. I was also impressed with Kelley’s open tone and lack of hostility – though it makes sense, since Kelley himself noted he’d been the principal of a charter school before he came to Lebanon.

Paul Dakopolos:

Dakopolos started with something that I thought was important: That PIE’s failure to notify the district of its intent to open another school was a material breach of contract that could result in the termination of the contract if not corrected. Interestingly, none of the Sand Ridge supporters seemed to care. Dakopolos was clear to say that the Board could choose to either change the reality on the ground or the contract, but it could not do nothing. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” he said.

He was very, very careful to note that the contract was something the Board wanted and owned, and that it was the Board’s choice to change it or not.

After that, his two related concerns were liability and money.

1. Liability: Basically, the issue was the PIE, in violation of the contract, had opened both another charter school (in Sweet Home) and a fully private pre-K school in Lebanon. He was concerned that since PIE was “one nonprofit running three schools,” there was no way to keep separate Lebanon’s interests in Sand Ridge and PIE when it came to a lawsuit or other legal action against PIE.

This is an obviously legitimate concern from a legal point of view. To suggest otherwise is to deny reality.

2. Money: Arm-in-arm with liability, Dakopolos was concerned – and thought the board should be concerned – that PIE does not track funding received from different sources separately (this was echoed in no uncertain terms by Donna Chastain). In other words, Dakopolos was worried that Lebanon dollars were being spent on the other two schools operated by PIE – and that there was no way to know when this was happening, or to what extent.

Again, an obviously legitimate concern. Frankly, I’m a little shocked that this was at all controversial, though again, the Sand Ridge supporters in the room didn’t bat an eye.

Dakpolos was also careful in noting that having one nonprofit run two charter schools is legal – he just wanted the board to consider whether or not it was a good idea. His recommendation was to change the contract to require a separate entity for Sand Ridge to provide “operational assurances.”

Rick looked like he wanted to attack Dakopolos when he said that. I have no idea why.

Donna Chastain:

She spent a looooong time going through a list of contractual and state law violations related to Sand Ridge and PIE’s policies and procedures. I won’t rehash the whole list – I didn’t take notes on all of it anyway. I did think that her presentation was simultaneously very effective on merit and very counterproductive in terms of building a bridge between PIE and the LCSD. I think it came across to the SR supporters as an attack – but all of Chastain’s points were simply her trying to get SR and PIE to comply with the law & contract. I wish she would have pointed that out more often and more clearly. Sometimes professionalism gets in the way.

There were a few things I wanted to note:

1. Chastain had found an “us vs. them” mentality in the meeting minutes of the PIE board.

No crap. However, since the PIE/SR folks obviously think the district hates them, I would suggest an approach that doesn’t bring up conflict (doing so being tantamount to acknowledging the truth of the Sand Ridge approach, as counterintuitive as that might sound) but instead publicly ignores it in favor of simply offering to be the first to give something up to bridge-building.

By the way, I think Robinson did just that with his whole approach and presentation. It was just Chastain who mentioned it. Again, she’s correct on the merit, but LCSD School Boards meetings are their own alternate reality, so she loses on political grounds.

2. Chastain noted that PIE fails to inform the district about a whole host of things that are required by contract & law, including the presence of more than one sexual harassment case as well as the possibility that SR had improperly denied overtime to classified (custodial?) staff through misclassification of their job status.

The total of the content of Chastain’s recommendations can be summed up as follows: 1) Develop a procedure governing [problem X]; 2) “You’d want the auditors to come and look at that.”

Again, she was professional, but the effect was to have a district representative eviscerate SR, which did not play well in the proverbial Peoria of the crowd.

The cumulative effect was to make SR’s operations more professional. I am starting to wonder if the SR supporters explicitly or implicitly reject that, setting it in opposition to perhaps a DIY ethic or even an anti-government/old-school libertarian ethic.

Whatever the merits of either of those, I would hope that PIE can at least acknowledge the legal realities of modern U.S. society. I’m starting to think they can’t.

Also, I wonder if they reject the Enlightenment model of professional expertise on something like an unconscious epistemological level – the “we have always done it this way and we don’t need anyone from the city to tell us what to do” model of knowledge.

While there are good things to be said for such a rejection, it at least needs to be a nuanced rejection that allows for learning from the expert in a controlled fashion. I see a wholesale refusal.

Jan Zarate:

Zarate’s advice was short and pretty simple, but was in the same vein as Chastain’s: Here is a list of things you’re doing (or not doing) that violate state or federal laws; here are some ways to correct them.

One example of the lack of Individual Education Plans (IEP) for students, which is a violation of IDEA .

I think she also mentioned the lack of training given staff around the dispensing of medication, something else that’s obviously illegal.

Robinson Part Two:

Robinson had a wrap-up piece, which was to present the list of nine choices for the board. Robinson was very clear that two options were eliminated a priori from the list: (1) Simply not renewing the charter and (2) renewing the charter without changing it at all. I think that is an eminently fair and wise idea given the long list of ways in which PIE failed to meet both the contract and state law.

The Recommendations:

1. To not renew but let PIE resubmit with PIE controlling just Sand Ridge.

2. To not renew but let PIE form an offshoot to resubmit for control of Sand Ridge.

(Basically, to have someone resubmit with Sand Ridge being independent of the other two schools currently being operated by PIE; this was an attempt to get at the liability and money issues raised by Paul Dakopolos.)

3. Renew the charter contingent on PIE’s willingness to offshoot the other two schools.

4. Renew the charter contingent on PIE’s willingness to form a separate entity to run SR.

(These are variations on 1 and 2, respectively.)

5. Have PIE and the LCSD agree to a nonrenewal, with the district agreeing to take over SR and operate it “as is.”

This was going to be incredibly unpopular and Robinson had to know it. It might have been bad politics to include this, but it is at the least a sign of his professionalism that he included it since it would be a viable option in a more functional environment.

6. Renewal of the charter with PIE signing a management agreement with another organization (again, to get around the liability issues, I think).

7. Renewal of the charter but have the LCSD become a ‘signee’ of PIE… I’m not sure what this one would entail.

8. To have PIE disassociate with the LCSD as the oversight or sponsoring entity, and instead have PIE work directly with the State Board of Education.

I can’t see this one going over well, since PIE is so insistent on a total lack of oversight. But it again speaks to Robinson’s professionalism that he included it; if selected, it could almost not help but be read as an admission that PIE and the LCSD couldn’t get along.

9. To have PIE withdraw the application for renewal only to form a new nonprofit and have the district expedite the application; this would be designed to get SR run as its own nonprofit and not have to close down for any period of time. It was also suggested by Jay Jackson.

Robinson stated clearly that the board was free to choose from the options or reject them and pick their own; I think he had intended to provide guidance and a starting place for discussion.

Up to this point, it seemed clear to me that there was going to be a discussion, but that everyone in the room wanted to see Sand Ridge survive. It was just going to be a matter of establishing a way forward that was amenable to all parties. I was actually sort of happy about the way things had gone, because Robinson and the D.O. staff were clearly offering not just the olive branch but the whole damned tree. They had planned out some really good process and even presented their information in a way that I thought made it clear that they supported the existence of the charter school. All the setup had been done, and done well; it was time to get down to business.

Sadly, Rick Alexander was not interested in talking or building relationships or any of that other hippie crap. As soon as he had the opportunity, he made a motion to approve the renewal of the charter without asking a single question. He also failed to give Jay Jackson, head of PIE and principal at Sand Ridge, a chance to weigh in – which suggests to me that this was very clearly planned beforehand. Why else would Alexander not want to hear from Jackson?

This is where it all goes downhill. Like a landslide.

It was clear to me that neither Robinson nor Sprenger had any intent to deny the renewal of the charter; they just wanted to have a conversation about how to best work through the legal and communications issues they had discovered before they voted. Again, I consider this to be good process, and sensible. Robinson had made just about every effort possible to make it clear his intent was to see the school survive.

Alexander had other plans. He started blathering on about a charter school meeting he’d attended and some guy named Randy. According to Randy, we have to do it this way, Alexander said. It was very clear.

This was a revelation to me. I had thought it was a revelation to the admin types as well, but I found it later it almost certainly wasn’t (see #2 below).

Turns out that Alexander – for once – had found something that actually stuck; he had found ORS 338.065, which governs the renewal process of public charter schools. It states that there are two parts: Renewal of the existence of the charter, and subsequent negotiations over the content of the charter. Alexander’s explanation made no sense to me – I had to read the statute for myself to figure out what he was talking about.

The thing is, he still used it like Robinson and Co. were attempting to deny renewal. They weren’t. They just wanted to talk first – and besides, the D.O. staff does not vote on renewal; the board does, and the board had showed no signs of opposing the charter renewal.

I was a bit flabbergasted, actually. It seemed so obvious that Alexander was going to get what he wanted – renewal – and that playing nice would not cost him anything.

Boy, was I hopelessly naive. That and I had been lulled into a false sense of security, I guess.

By the way, the vote was 4-1 with Sprenger dissenting on the grounds that the process was bad. Also, Debi Shimmin never said a thing or asked a question and voted yes without hesitation. I consider this another sign that she, Wineteer, and Alexander had planned this out beforehand, which is in violation of both the letter and the spirit of the law here.

As far as I can tell, there were three things going on:

1. Grandstanding

There were lots (100+?) of SR supporters in the audience. Rick was playing to them, showing off by being all tough with the school district.

This was pathetic. It reminded me of a little kid who insists on disagreeing with his parents even when his parents are suggesting ice cream or something the kid really wants – the important part is to appear independent and strong even if it is counterproductive. (Or to put it another way, the goals of appearance of toughness and getting what you want conflict and the former wins.)

I am beginning to think it worked, since there was a loud round of applause when Alexander’s motion passed. It also suggests that the audience either a) didn’t actually understand the admin’s report at all (which can also be summarized as “follow these recommendations or be in violation of the law and liable to get sued”) or they just didn’t care – they just wanted to see their school stay open and the district lose at any cost. I’m waffling between the two, but I suppose it could be both.

2. ORS Statutes/Legal Process

Since the LCSD went through this during the last renewal process, they should have known about it. Yet nowhere did Robinson or anyone else from the D.O. acknowledge them, and Rick Alexander was very successful in beating the district over the head with them. Yes, he was correct on the law, but – and here I agree with Robinson and Sprenger – he severely undercut the developing process, thereby eliminating a rather large and important opportunity to start to develop a better relationship between the LCSD and PIE.

Obviously Rick has no intention of doing that. Apparently his supporters are OK with that.

What I don’t understand is why the D.O. didn’t have a better rejoinder to Rick’s insistence that his method was the law. It obviously was – why not just admit the point and have the discussion? I was surprised that the D.O. had not anticipated Rick’s move of instantly motioning to approve.

It made the D.O. staff and Robinson look either unprepared (strange, considering the comprehensiveness of the report) or like they were trying to somehow weasel PIE.

Sadly, I think they just might have got caught trying to do the latter, at least in the eyes of the SR supporters. I suspect, given that Robinson knew about the process, that he wanted to have the conversation before approving the existence of the charter because it would have resulted in a much stronger negotiating position for the district (which, by the way, is a completely appropriate position for the Superintendent of the School District). He lost, and as a result the district’s negotiating position is compromised. It should go without saying that this is good news for Alexander – why the public thinks having someone on the School Board who hates the district is acceptable is beyond me; certainly it’s possible to provide meaningful oversight to Jim Robinson and still play well with others.

The district’s entire presentation was based on getting PIE to follow state law and their contract – both of which are consistent with a district who likes Sand Ridge. For Alexander to be so hostile is a slap in the face of just about the nicest thing I’ve ever seen Jim Robinson do. He bent over backwards to illustrate his commitment to Sand Ridge and to the process. What happened poisons an already-polluted well even more, and this time, Alexander needs to take full responsibility for that.

I’ve blogged before about my skepticism that Robinson has or will change his approach. His method of dealing with the Sand Ridge renewal – with the possible exception of the ORS flap – was fantastic. I was very impressed with his willingness to work with the folks that have dumped on him and his dedication to building a relationship. So kudos to him and his team for that.

3. Accountability

In retrospect, the actions of Alexander and PIE are designed to avoid any meaningful accountability or oversight. They simply want to take public money and spend it how they want. Neither do I see any indication they have any intentions to follow relevant laws.

This is, to put it politely, crap. It will catch up to them eventually. None of the recommendations I heard from the D.O. staff infringed on the pedagogical independence of the school. I wonder how many of them realize they just made it less likely that Sand Ridge will survive in the long run, not more? I would have thought having the district work quietly with you to fix contract and legal violations would be infinitely preferable to getting sued or having the state come down on you (the state being far more likely to subject SR and PIE to punitive measures as well as provide additional and unwanted oversight).

Or do PIE and Rick Alexander really think the law does not apply to them? Do they think the contract with the district can be ignored forever and without consequence? One certainly hopes not, but that was the behavior on display at the meeting.

I’m also beginning to think that Alexander and PIE are part of the black helicopter/New World Order crowd.

Consequences/Aftermath

The ball is in PIE’s court. They got what they wanted – renewal of the charter’s existence – but at what cost?

The next step – someone correct me if I’m wrong – is renegotiating the charter contract. If I’m Jim Robinson, I’m going to do the same thing I was going to do before: Insist that the revised contract take into account all the problems the district found and otherwise act in the District’s interest. This is going to be a giant thorn in PIE’s side, since – if the D.O. has any sense – it will mean the inclusion of much more specific language in the contract regarding the consequences of PIE’s failure to abide by the terms. In other words, it will mean placing increased accountability and oversight in the contract rather than work it out in discussion, as Robinson obviously wanted to do at the meeting.

One other possibility is that Alexander will try and micromanage the contract, or at least give directions to the negotiating team that undermine the interests of the district.

I wonder if it takes a board motion to break the contract based on material breach? For PIE’s sake, I hope it does… though the board discussion surrounding that, should it become a reality, should be hilarious in a War of the Roses meets Mad Max sort of way.

In any case, it may not matter. The LCSD may report – as per the law – legal violations it discovers to the relevant state and federal agencies if PIE is not willing to work with the LCSD to correct them. That will create a much larger headache for PIE than Jim Robinson ever could (it will also create another headache for the LCSD as the overseeing district, which has got to be one of Robinson’s motivations throughout all this).

(Very) Long story short: Power politics rules again in Lebanon, much to the detriment of students.

This time, however, it was near-unilateral.

I hope people stand up and take note of this, especially you folks who have been making blanket condemnations of the board.

This was not an all-around mess. It was one faction reaching out in good faith and having their efforts rebuffed in a needlessly hostile manner by another.

This is why I post these insanely long meeting summaries. I think they are more revealing than the space-limited DH or LE stories.

Word Count: 3796

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6 Comments on “Lebanon School Board Meeting: Sand Ridge Charter School”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    As a Sand Ridge parent I agree with most everything said here and am concerned about what I heard last night. I think a change is on order here.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Excellent coverage Dennis. I have two questions.
    1. If they breached the previous contract, why would anyone think they would uphold any future contracts regardless of how they’re written?
    I appreciate the comment from the Sand Ridge parent.
    I would like to hear from more of them.

    Question # 2. What would it take to get you to run for school board? Seriously.

  3. Dennis Says:

    Anonymous #2,

    The trick is with future contracts to write it in such a way as to allow the LCSD to have more control over the penalties for noncompliance.

    For example – though I highly doubt this is legal – the LCSD could insist on writing into the contract a way to withhold funding for PIE if PIE does not comply.

    Or something along those lines that is legal.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Good Post.
    Yes, PIE and especially Rick Alexander do think they are above the law. They think they can take public money (read that yours and mine folks) and do what they want with it. No accountability. Oh Happy Days for them!
    This District absolutely should report them, to remove the District from liability. And it is the Troublesome Trio to blame, not Jim R.
    Think about it: the idea of say, hiring someone without having a job description, or a contract, or a salary, or…whatever else is right and normal…is the same as what the Board did last night in renewing Sand Ridge without a negotiated contract. Absurd!
    The Sand Ridge Parents who truly seem to care so much should hold those people, who wield far more power over what happens with their kids than Jim Robinson does, to a very strict standard. Actions speak louder than words.
    I heard all the SR people talking about playing by the rules, having a nice, safe environment, and regular promotion of good behaviors as some of the best things about SR.
    Lets see if they really mean that–starting with PIE, the Leadership at SR, and the man who proclaims himself their champion, Rick Alexander.
    I think SR families have had the wool pulled over their eyes (being told and accepting without question that Jim R. and the District are their enemy) and last night was quite an eye-opening experience. It sure should be!
    And someone, please tell me, when are people going to get tired of Rick and Josh (and Debi….sigh)throwing up smoke screens—i.e. putting people on leave; not following the agenda/adding last minute things; complaining when they can’t ask questions; not asking questions!!! when they should; filing lawsuits; ignoring the District lawyer’s advice, which isn’t FREE people, etc.—on a regular basis to divert attention from where it really needs to be: with them complying with the law and thus PUTTING THE KIDS FRONT AND CENTER.

  5. Roxy Says:

    You didn’t answer question #2 from anonymous #2.

    The poster said it was serious, I demand a serious answer! 😀

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Robinson had an agenda at the last School Board Meeting. He wanted to put a black mark on PIE. The information that was shared was full of half truths. SR did not become an excellent school on it’s own, remember PIE created
    SR and PIE runs SR, and it is considered to be an excellent school! A school that the district wants to keep. Maybe we should want to explore how PIE has been so successful in educating kids. Maybe we can learn something from them. I find it interesting that everything that the D.O. shared was taken as the gospel truth by a number of you. Get the true facts before you draw conclusions. Always remember the source of your information and what their true motives might be.


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