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State looks askance at Sauvie Island admission preferences

School wins temporary waiver extension, but criteria changes 'likely'

Photo Credit: FILE - Oregon Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton (second from right) with Sauvie Island Academy Director Darla Meeuwsen (third from right) and several student guides on a visit to Sauvie Island Academy in October. Sauvie Island Academy has sought an extension of a waiver giving priority to island residents and children of school staff and founders. Saxton said last Thursday, Dec. 11, that he is concerned such a waiver allows public school staff to unduly benefit from their employment.The Oregon State Board of Education, while granting a temporary reprieve, signaled that Sauvie Island Academy’s waiver giving certain children preference for admission may be on borrowed time.

The board considered three waiver extension requests from charter schools, including Sauvie Island Academy, at its meeting Thursday, Dec. 11. On a 5-1 vote, it approved all — but only for enrollment in the 2015-16 school year, while committing to hold a work session in the spring to discuss the issue further, on a motion offered by Charles R. Martinez Jr.

Under the terms of its waiver from the state, Sauvie Island Academy gives Sauvie Island residents and children of staff members and school founders priority in the admission lottery. The lottery system is used to select new students from a pool of applicants, due to limited space at the K-8 charter school.

Board considers waiver ethics

Rob Saxton, the state’s deputy superintendent of education, said his personal belief is that giving preference to the children of public school teachers and other staff members is problematic.

“There is an ethics issue about benefiting from your position if you’re a state employee, or if you’re a public employee in any way,” Saxton said. “And so there has to be a question asked about whether or not the teacher is benefiting from the fact that they’re a public employee.”

There was general agreement with this sentiment among board members.

“At some point, we have to draw a line and say we have these new standards that we’ve worked hard to develop ... and maybe these waivers are harder to get under that, because they were routinely granted before,” said board member Miranda Summer.

Martinez suggested granting the waiver extensions for one more enrollment period only for the time being as a “compromise” solution. However, he and fellow board member Jerome Colonna made it clear that they want to see changes in the criteria for charter school waivers after this year.

“On a personal level, I have lots of issues with the way we’ve granted waivers as a board, over history,” Martinez said. “So it’s hard to make a decision to let things go forward when I have lots of personal trouble with it.”

Kate Pattison, a charter school specialist with the Oregon Department of Education who briefed the board on the three waiver requests Thursday, noted that Sauvie Island Academy’s circumstances are somewhat unique. The charter school is the only school of any kind on rural, sparsely populated Sauvie Island.

“It is a very specific geographic boundary,” Pattison said.

Martinez and Summer acknowledged that geography is a consideration that the board will have to address.

But for now, Martinez said, “I’m comfortable with an interim solution, as long as we know it really is interim, and that we’ve communicated that effectively to the schools that are being considered right now.”

Colonna supported Martinez’s proposal, but he expressed little sympathy for a geographical preference.

“The waivers, on their face, I can see as being very fair for different interest groups, but I don’t see them living up to equal access for all students,” Colonna said, adding, “For certain groups like founders, or board members, or teachers, or people who live in a certain area to be able to jump that equal access thing seems to me to go against the very nature of what charter schools are trying to give us.”

Director: Sauvie Island is different

Darla Meeuwsen, director of Sauvie Island Academy, was at Thursday’s meeting in Salem, although she did not testify before the board. She did submit a letter to the board, however, appealing for the waiver extension.

Meeuwsen’s letter argued that “even with a waiver which allows on island and staff/founders preference in the enrollment lottery the potential for the school to be solely attended by on island and staff/founder residents is not feasible.”

The letter also attempted to draw a distinction between Sauvie Island Academy’s waiver and other waiver requests.

“The best answer I can provide is just that, ‘We are an Island!’” Meeuwsen wrote. “Our ability to grow is not possible; therefore our ability to create housing developments that could exponentially grow our numbers of on-island students is not possible. ... Sauvie Island Academy will always have space, a need and a great desire for off island students!”

Under the terms of Martinez’s successful motion, with an amendment offered by Colonna, the board will meet to develop new criteria for considering waiver requests before the end of March.

Martinez said the board’s criteria “will likely change in some fundamental ways between now and the next time there would be a request to extend.”

The sole member of the board to vote against the motion was Angela Bowen.

“I feel responsible as a board member to help provide equal access for students in the state of Oregon,” Bowen said. “And that means all students, all access.”

The other charter schools to have temporary waiver extensions approved Thursday were Coburg Community Charter School and KairosPDX.