by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) recently became the first school district in the state to have its charter school authorizer status revoked.
WAPS’ ability to authorize charter schools has come to an end after four years of corrective action and input from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to address deficiencies. WAPS, which authorizes Bluffview Montessori School and Ridgeway Community School, is one of 14 school districts and other entities that serve as charter school authorizers in Minnesota, and the first to have its authorizer status revoked by the state, according to MDE.
Bluffview and Ridgeway have about a year to find a new authorizer, and leaders of both schools have begun the process of searching for their next oversight entities. MDE aims to support the charter schools as they work to find new authorizers, but stated if the schools do not secure authorizers by June 30, 2021, they would close.
“We continue to work with Winona and the charter schools in that portfolio … We stand ready to help,” MDE Charter Center Supervisor Paula Higgins shared.
The state’s 169 charter schools must have an authorizer by law. Authorizers — of which there are 14 in Minnesota, including WAPS — and charter schools’ boards develop contracts outlining performance expectations, and authorizers then keep track of how charter schools are meeting these expectations. Authorizer contracts can take a few months to finalize, according to MDE.
Authorizers may be schools districts, public and private colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations or nonprofit organizations with the sole purpose of authorizing charter schools. They are evaluated with the Minnesota Authorizer Performance Evaluation System (MAPES). In the May 31, 2016, evaluation that spurred the years of corrective action, WAPS measured satisfactory or above in five of the 20 areas reviewed. Deficiencies identified for WAPS included issues tied to practices for continued monitoring of charter schools, in addition to methods for interventions, corrective action and responding to complaints at charter schools.
Authorizers may fulfill their oversight responsibilities in various ways depending on factors such as the number of charter schools they authorize, Higgins said. Authorizers may attend charter schools’ board meetings or visit the charter schools on site, for instance.
WAPS will serve as an authorizer until June 30, 2021, or until the charter schools it authorizes find new authorizers, if new authorizers are found before June 30, 2021.
WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit noted that staffing and funding impacted WAPS’ ability to serve as an authorizer. “I would say we don’t have the resources to be an authorizer in general,” Freiheit shared.
WAPS could apply to be an authorizer again. However, Freiheit explained that the district does not plan to do so. “We don’t have the staffing or funding,” Freiheit said.
The WAPS director of learning and teaching has typically been responsible for serving as a liaison to the charter schools. The director will continue doing so until WAPS is no longer officially an authorizer, Freiheit shared.
WAPS aims to continue collaborating with the charter schools it authorizes even after it is not serving as an authorizer, Freiheit stated.
Bluffview and Ridgeway have started searching for new authorizers. Ridgeway School Coordinator Jodi Dansingburg and Bluffview Head of School Henry Schantzen declined to comment at this time on the specific authorizers with whom they are communicating.
Some turnover in the WAPS’ position associated with being the liaison to the charter schools meant a new person had to learn about the authorization duties every few years, Dansingburg noted. “We always worked well with the person we had in that place,” Dansingburg said. “It just takes a little time to get up to speed” for each new WAPS’ liaison.
Changes in authorizer guidelines around the time that MAPES was implemented were “well-intentioned,” Dansingburg said, and meant in part to “make sure nonprofits doing oversight [of charter schools] had staff familiar with educational oversight and rules,” but authorizer evaluations seemed to not fit school districts completely, she added.
“A director of teaching and learning in a typical school district, any training they’re going to, say … special education [programs], they may be learning about it for their district, but it would also apply to charter schools they’re authorizing,” Dansingburg shared. “There wasn’t necessarily a way to always credit school districts” in authorizer evaluations.
Dansingburg noted that she thinks the few other school districts who are authorizers have had similar frustrations. “And I think honestly in part that’s why there are only three, soon to be two, districts that authorize charter schools,” Dansingburg stated. “I think with the best of intentions to make sure there was good oversight and rules, [rules] are often written to govern problems that have arisen. But then it becomes cumbersome for a typical public school to serve as an authorizer because of changes in what an authorizer has to do that have come over the last five to 10 years.”
Dansingburg said she does not see her school’s day-to-day connection with WAPS changing much once the district is not the school’s authorizer.
“I’ve always felt comfortable and have regularly communicated with different administrators in the district about various questions,” Dansingburg said. “And I feel confident that will continue to happen on a collaborative basis, whether that’s food service or special education or transportation.”
Schantzen said WAPS was available when his school needed help and gave it the right amount of autonomy. He added that he submitted a report to the WAPS Board quarterly, and Bluffview’s board and WAPS’ board had meetings a couple times every year.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more information as this story develops.