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Area charter school boards face challenge; Oversight groups look for ways to meet stringent new rules

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Bill Wolf, at right, chair of the governing council for Sidney Gutierrez Middle School, says the board probably will add at least two new members this year, but state training requirements have been increased, making it more difficult to find people able to commit to that time. Wolf is seen at a January 2017 meeting of the council. From left is council member Betsy Cunningham, member Dr. Michael Taylor and Sidney Gutierrez Principal Joseph Andreis. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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The Sidney Gutierrez Middle School Governing Council wants to add a couple more members this academic year, but the state’s increased training requirements are making that a bit of a challenge.

“I think we have a few people in mind who would make good additions,” said Bill Wolf, chair of the middle school’s council. “But it is difficult to find people who can make the time for training.”

The issue is also being experienced by at least one of the two charter schools in Carlsbad.

“I think we are all trying to feel out these new requirements,” said Deanna Weston-Helmer, president of the Council of Trustees for the Jefferson Montessori Academy in Carlsbad.

She said the council installed three new members who received waivers to delay training after they completed an online course and passed a test. But those new members still will need 10 hours of in-person training before the end of the fiscal year, while existing members of charter schools need up to eight hours every year.

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Weston-Helmer and Sidney Gutierrez representatives are talking with each other and the New Mexico Public Education Department, as well as with the other charter school in Carlsbad, Pecos Connections Academy, an online program, to bring the training to this region.

“There is going to have to be some give and take among new members, existing members and the PED,” Weston-Helmer said.

She and Wolf say that they feel the state education department has been accommodating, but that the requirements can still seem daunting to some current or potential board members.

That is due both to geography and changing rules.

Currently, the New Mexico Public Education Department does not offer its own approved training workshops in the eastern part of New Mexico as a matter of routine. Board members therefore must travel elsewhere, with the primary locations now being Albuquerque, Santa Fe or Taos. Occasionally, training by the state occurs in other cities, including Las Cruces. But that still requires significant time commitment and travel expenses for board members.

The second factor affecting charter schools is the more stringent rules instituted by the Public Education Department in July 2017. Changes were made, in part, to prevent the lack of appropriate oversight statewide that contributed to public charter school closures. At least nine public charters schools have failed in New Mexico.

“We found that what was happening under the prior rule was not helping our boards be successful, and we know that successful boards are probably one of the most important elements of having a successful charter school,” said Katie Poulos, director of options for parents and families with the state education department. “For new board members, we especially found that they were not prepared to fulfill their duties, specifically in relation to financial oversight of charter schools and, on top of that, academic oversight of charter schools.”

Poulos explained that, before the rule change, all governing board members had to receive five hours of training, but that no real standards or expectations were attached to the training.

The new rules require that new members have seven hours of in-person training prior to voting on any matters, said Poulos, unless they receive the hardship waiver, which allows them to vote while they get training sometime during the year. Areas covered in initial training include ethics and responsibility, fiscal responsibility, academic data, open government and legal and organizational issues. In addition, new board members must have another three hours of training some time during the fiscal year.

Continuing board members need eight hours of in-person training a year, but that can be reduced by as much as four hours for high-performing schools. Sidney Gutierrez qualifies for reductions for both fiscal and academic requirements, while Jefferson Montessori qualifies for reductions in financial training, according to state records.

While the increased requirements might seem disconcerting at first, Poulos said, many board members talk about how they have appreciated the information gained. But Poulos acknowledges that part of the requirements can be difficult to meet and said the state education department is trying to make the training as accessible as possible through a variety of means, including the short-term hardship waivers for new members and the requirement reductions for select schools.

She added that PED teams will travel to charter schools if needed, as is now trying to be arranged for Roswell and Carlsbad charters, and will continue to explore technological options such as interactive online meetings.

The other option, she said, is that charter schools can develop their own training in partnerships with charter school administrators, lawyers, financial risk-managers and other experts, although the education department still must approve the providers and the materials.

“We are probably a little way off from schools doing that,” Poulos said, “but we do hope to see over the next couple of years that they will take the opportunity to work with providers that can potentially provide them really targeted training specifically related to what they know they need.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.