Molalla school board considers intent to terminate RPA charter
A decision is before the Molalla School Board on whether to terminate the charter for Renaissance Public Academy due to "specific deficiencies in practice and performance" at the school.
In a memo to the MRSD school board dated June 15, Superintendent Tony Mann stated that he is concerned about Renaissance Public Academy.
"A substantive pattern of legal and contractual violations at Renaissance Public Academy has persisted during the 2016-17 school year," Mann wrote. "This is in spite of the clarity of expectations set forth at the time of the charter renewal and within the Charter Agreement itself."
Mann said he requested Dave Luce, District Administrator and Charter School Liaison, to "summarize the nature, both historically and over the course of this year, of the failures at RPA."
The district board meeting room was packed with about 50 RPA parents, teachers and supporters Thursday, June 22, as the board members listened to the opinions of Oregon City-based attorney Richard Cohn-Lee, legal counsel for the district, in a special meeting on the matter.
RPA was represented at the meeting by attorney Matt Lowe.
Several times during the two and a half hour long meeting, strong words were exchanged between the two attorneys.
Cohn-Lee announced at the start of the meeting that nobody from RPA would be allowed to make public comment except the school's legal counsel and two representatives.
Parents and school representatives were stunned by the announcement, as a 'Public Comment' period was listed on the agenda, permitting three-minute comments from members of the public. Several parents had arrived with written comments in their hands.
Cohn-Lee said that during the period since the last charter renewal for the school, several issues related to student safety and performance" had been observed.
Those 16 issues, outlined in the district memo, were related mostly to specific student safety situations regarding special education students.
In particular, the memo states: "A detailed accounting of concerns that have surfaced during the school year 2016-17, identifying patterns of continued failure on the part of RPA to meet the explicit expectations of the Molalla School District, the Charter Agreement between RPA and MRSD, and State and Federal Law."
Those issues included:
- Denying the rights of two students to FAPE; Failing to follow district expectations for communication regarding enrolling Special Education Students.
- An RPA 5th-year senior had been on a 504 plan with accommodations for several years. In March, 2017, the student's parent reported to the district SPED director that RPA had failed to follow the accommodations of the 504 for nearly three years prior.
- When the RPA administrator was informed by the First Student Transportation Manager that a student had written a suicide note and left it on the bus, the school failed to investigate and respond.
- A horse of unknown ownership found its way through a gap in the school fence and onto the RPA campus, running around uncontrolled, in the tight spaces close to the buildings. RPA failed to take seriously the risk to students and staff, and failed to immediately respond.
- An RPA teacher who was taking the seniors on a senior class trip to Seattle, refused to consider allowing an RPA senior student on an IEP, to participate in the trip, based on his history of suicidal thinking.
- An RPA Board member inserted themselves into a student's IEP Team discussion, criticizing the district SPED director and questioning the decisions of the IEP Team.
- An RPA teacher refused to provide accommodations as outlined in a student's IEP.
- An RPA teacher, as part of the 504 team, indicated that she had not provided any of the accommodations in the 504 plan to the student since the team had last met.
After receiving the district memo, RPA administrators and their legal counsel answered with a memo from the school dated June 21, addressing each of the 16 "alleged deficiencies" in turn. In nearly every instance, the RPA memo states that the allegation is false.
"This memorandum sets forth Renaissance Public Academy's ("RPA") preliminary response to the false and misleading allegations set forth in the June 14, 2017, memorandum from Molalla River School District," the memo stated. "RPA is confident that upon a critical review and evaluation of the allegations presented by MRSD staff, the MRSD Board of Directors will recognize that RPA has operated, and continues to operate, the charter school effectively and appropriately, and at all times in the best interests of the students and families that receive educational services from RPA."
"The school district wanted to have this special meeting tonight, not to terminate, but to issue the intent to terminate," Cohn told the assembly. "The district has very serious concerns. If the board decides to terminate, that would be after 60 days."
RPA has a Say
Terry Muilenburg, an RPA Board member, was one of three representatives for the school allowed to make a comment, limited to three minutes. He read from his prepared statement.
"I want to say at the outset, that in visiting with one of your other board members, they shared with me that in the past, RPA has come across as antagonistic, and even hostile," he said. "I recognize that perception is nine-tenths of reality, and so if you have felt that way, I sincerely apologize, and assure you that this is not our desired posture. I will say, however, that we feel like we are being treated like an enemy, so it is understandable that it comes across that way.
"I believe that the Molalla River School District board and the RPA board want our working relationship to be one of collaboration and not adversarial," he said. "It is not only desirable, it is imperative, for our students' education hangs in the balance."
Muilenburg said he had planned to run through the situations put forth in the district's memorandum, but since he was limited to a few minutes, could not.
"If all you have to go on is what's in that memo, it is fully understandable to come away with a very dim view," he said. "However, when you get all the information, an entirely different situation emerges.
"Here is my major concern: that we in the enterprise of education lose sight of why we are here," he said. "Yes, the political do-gooders have made up a myriad of rules and regulations, and then tried to justify their existence by calling them law. It is a sad day when we spend so much of our resources on shuffling paper, crossing T's and dotting i's, and covering our collective rears. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves."
Matt Lowe, legal counsel for RPA also addressed the board.
"It's really important our school and administration and board work together," Lowe said. "We need to put our shoulders to the same plow. The focus needs to be on our students."
Lowe noted that RPA had sent a memo to the school board members in answer to the district memo RPA had received on Friday, June 23.
"If all you have is a memo you received, I understand you'd have a dim view of our situation," he said. "Read carefully the memo sent to you from RPA. You should see the whole picture. We are trying to explain what happened. Tonight is a very serious step, if you take a vote to terminate. I urge you to take a step back. There's no rush."
Mann offered a digital presentation showing contract violations and failure to comply with state and federal law, by the charter school, as outlined by the district.
"In many instances, contract violations are also violations of federal and state law," Mann told the roomful of people.
The Board weighs in
In a Q and A period following the presentation, Board member Craig Loughridge said, "I had a number of questions, but it sounds like I won't have time." Loughridge noted that "Not allowing substantive input from the audience made it look like the board is only interested in what is presented by the district.
"We should have input before we vote on anything," he said. We don't doubt the administration, but to be fair to everyone in the room, I feel we should give them a chance to speak."
Loughridge noted that the two memos offered by the district and RPA were "entirely contradictory."
Board member Neal Lucht said the board should "look at the spirit of the contract" and asked how many of the 16 issues outlined in the district memo had been resolved by RPA already.
Lucht said he agreed with Loughridge. "I looked at our and RPA's and I see two different worlds," he said. "I'd suggest do a hearing and go through everything, and get this straightened out. We need to get right down to the bottom of it for the students and their families."
Lucht suggested that the board vote for an intent to terminate.
"We have to communicate," he said. "I am uncomfortable with what I see in both of these memos."
Board member Ralph Gierke agreed, noting that with memos, "bits and pieces aren't any good until we get down to the real nitty gritty."
Board member Liz Cruthers also agreed. "There's never been any doubt that the RPA curriculum is superior to anything in our school district," Cruthers said. "I'd like to say after coming here from RPA and on the board four years . . . this is not about hating or trying to close a charter school. And I've got to say this horse thing is really silly."
Board Chairman Calvin Nunn said he was of the same mind. "Those two memos - there's like a grand canyon between them," Nunn said. "So if we need to set up a formal hearing, that's what we need to do. I feel the charter school is a good idea. But we need to have the complete story on why there's a chasm between the two memos."
Has to be a Timeline
Cohn-Lee, the district's legal counsel, addressed the board, informing them a timeline would provide two full months, "assuming it starts tonight" He said it was important to settle the matter during the school's summer vacation so as to let the RPA families know "which way this will go."
Loughridge said while he agrees with the timeline, "there is a substantive question I have that could be answered tonight. If I can't do that, I can't vote for anything."
He said he had a question for "the people here in charge of RPA."
At that point, Cohn-Lee called for a five-minute break.
Goodson addresses the 16 alleged deficiencies
Following the break, representatives from the school, Muilenburg, Cheryl Goodson and Lowe, were allowed to address the board, focusing on most of the 16 alleged deficiencies.
Goodson explained the RPA standpoint, telling how some of the situations came about and how they were handled by school personnel.
"When you said we falsified records," she said, "No. nothing close to that. All through that memo, there's hyperbole."
Lowe addressed one of the issues in particular, telling the board, "The people working with the student are the people who love and care for him. This is not an attempt to rough-shod the rules. They are trying to do what is right for the student and his family."
After a lengthy discussion between the RPA representatives and the school board, a motion was made, mixed in with comments, changes and amendments by the board.
The final motion was to assemble a task force to reach out to RPA and resolve the issues in 45 days max.
The motion was passed.
The next step is to form the task force and tackle the issues.