New twists, turns in North Star case

North Star charter schoolAt its heart, the battle between the Meridian School District and North Star Charter School is still one over financial stability.

North Star maintains that it is on firm footing. Creditors have given the school $650,000 to erase a shortfall, while allowing it to delay $850,000 in building payments until June 2014. This, say supporters, buys the 10-year-old school time to refinance its loan. The district says the deferred payments only kick the financial problems down the road, while the school remains saddled with $12 million in building loans at interest rates of 9.5 to 9.75 percent.

But now — as the state’s largest school district looks to revoke North Star’s charter, and the school prepares to accommodate 965 students when the new academic year begins Aug. 22 — this dispute has taken a couple of new twists.

A financial stake?

Jim Miller
Jim Miller, North Star Charter School board

North Star board chairman Jim Miller won’t outright accuse the Meridian School District of a conflict of interest — of standing to benefit by closing the school and absorbing its students.

“(But) I think the motivation … really needs to be questioned,” Miller said in an interview Wednesday.

In a complaint — filed with the State Board of Education Tuesday — North Star pointedly questions the district’s motives.

On June 25, minutes before taking the first steps to revoke the North Star charter, the School Board heard a sobering presentation on the district’s long-term budget picture. The district faces a “fiscal cliff,” finance director Alex Simpson told grim trustees, and one possible remedy is enrollment growth.

“It is obvious that absorption of North Star students after charter revocation would accomplish ‘growth’ to prevent going off the ‘fiscal cliff,’” North Star says in a summary of its complaint.

New enrollment comes with money attached, since state dollars are distributed based on a school’s average daily attendance. That would be the case if North Star students move to Meridian schools, even in the middle of the year; the district would receive the money on a prorated basis.

Still, the prospect of a sudden influx of students from North Star has Meridian officials worried. The district would have to hire additional staff midyear, while absorbing the unexpected costs of providing desks and books for new students, spokesman Eric Exline said Thursday. On Wednesday, district Superintendent Linda Clark put the matter more bluntly.

“We are not after their kids,” Superintendent Linda Clark told the Idaho Statesman’s Bill Roberts.

A question of process

linda clark
Linda Clark, Meridian district superintendent

By attempting to go straight to the State Board of Education, North Star is attempting to bypass the Meridian School Board. And use a new process put into law July 1.

North Star believes the district’s mind is made up, Miller says. Trustees voted to revoke the charter on June 25, and Clark followed up a day later with a letter spelling out the district’s concerns. Another hearing with the School Board would be “a waste of time,” Miller said.

So North Star is invoking a new law that changes the charter school governance and appeals process, and allows an appeal directly to the State Board.

But is North Star jumping the gun?

When the School Board voted to revoke North Star’s charter on June 25 — six days before the new charter school governance law went into effect — trustees said they would work with North Star to schedule a public hearing. The old charter school law required a school board to hold a public hearing before revoking a charter, although it allowed a charter school to appeal to the State Board.

Either way, it appears likely that North Star’s case will wind up before the State Board — sooner or later.