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Gresham's KNOVA school works its way out of the red

Although KNOVA Learning, a Reynolds School District-sponsored public charter school, has relocated to spacious new digs on the campus of the former Portland Lutheran School in the Rockwood neighborhood, it brought its financial challenges with it.

After making do in a converted furniture store nearby, the school is now on a campus that covers nearly 15 acres and has 90,000 square feet of school building space, including a first-rate gymnasium and basketball court.

“This is the first time the kids and teachers have been in a school that was built for that purpose,” noted John Nelsen, a former Reynolds school board member who is managing director of Portland Charter Partners, which manages what Nelsen calls KNOVA’s Rockwood Community Campus.

“I’m excited about their move,” said Reynolds School Board Vice Chairman Joe Teeny, who recently toured the campus. “The kids now have proper facilities to use.”

Nelsen is working to fill all that extra space with paying tenants. Latino Network and Gresham Little Theatre have already moved in. The Rockwood Initiative organization has signed on for some space, and Nelsen is negotiating with other groups. He expects after-school programing and youth sports camps also will be held at the school.

“We want to make this campus a wonderful resource for this community,” Nelsen said, noting that rent revenue will go toward improvements and upkeep at the school. “The school is in dire need of repairs.”

Portland Lutheran also left seemingly everything behind. The library was filled with books. Trophies still rested in their cases, and there’s a fully-equipped weight room, not likely to be used by the elementary school students. Old basketball uniforms gather dust in a cardboard box while theater costumes still hang on their racks.

KNOVA opened in 2010 with students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The school now goes up to sixth grade and has more than 400 students.

About 53 percent of KNOVA’s students are from low-income families, and 46 percent are Hispanic, two groups that typically do not test as well academically as others.

About 37.5 percent of KNOVA’s students met state guidelines for English language arts in standardized testing, compared with 46 percent of other Oregon schools with similar student bodies.

In math, only 25.6 percent of KNOVA students met the standardized testing benchmarks, compared with 38.7 percent of similar schools.

However, in relation to other neighborhood schools, Nelsen said, “we are comparable.”

In fact, KNOVA students’ test scores are better than both Alder Elementary and Davis Elementary schools nearby.

To help students succeed, KNOVA’s children go to school two hours more per day and 20 days more per year than other public schools.

Based on ability, students are divided into small learning groups and required to wear uniforms.

New Principal Raffi Martinian said he is working to improve student learning.

The charter plans to add a seventh grade next school year and an eighth grade class in the 2017-18 school year, which could bring the total of students to around 450.

The Reynolds School Board renewed KNOVA’s charter in April 2015 and increased its funding, although several board members expressed concern about KNOVA’s health. Passionate, even tearful, parents sang KNOVA’s praises at the school board meetings.

However, KNOVA continues to operate in the red. The most recent financials available show KNOVA about $102,000 in the hole. But Nelsen points out that that is down from about $500,000 a few years earlier.

“Our plan calls for us to be down to zero within the next two fiscal years,” Nelsen said. “We’re actually sitting in pretty good shape. I’m very pleased.”

KNOVA made cuts in food services, supplies and personnel to help right its budget.

An outside audit of the financials was critical of KNOVA’s accounting and financial procedures, but the auditor told the school board the school was implementing changes to improve them. The audit noted, for example, that the “finance director provided multiple ‘final’ financials in an untimely manner in spite of the finance director hiring a CPA firm to assist her.”

The Reynolds school board expressed concerns over the audit report at a December school board meeting with board member Dane Nickerson noting the audit report is not what they like to see and expressed “serious concern.”

In February, however, KNOVA presented again to the school board, whose members seemed more positive about KNOVA’s prospects. Director John Lindenthal noted that “it sounds like things are getting better.”

Board member Teeny said, “I believe in their mission and how they are working hard to fulfill the mission. We’ll be watching closely their finances as they work to right the ship.”