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W.Va.’s first charter school application is shot down by Monongalia board

Monongalia County’s school board has rejected an application for what might have been the first charter school in West Virginia.

The board unanimously voted against the application by the West Virginia Academy during an hour-long meeting at midday. The neighboring Preston County school board separately voted down the same proposal during its own 5 p.m. meeting today.

The school has been envisioned as serving students in Monongalia, Marion and Preston counties. But the application didn’t add up, said Nancy Walker, president of the Monongalia County school board.

Nancy Walker

“There still were a lot of unanswered areas in their application,” Walker said in a telephone interview with MetroNews.

Walker said individual kept an open mind until time to hear today’s presentation — then rendering a judgment like a jury might. But she said board members had a variety of concerns about the project.

Some board concerns focused on survey results while others questioned whether the charter school proposal was truly offering a new approach. There was another question about whether computer equipment would be adequate.

She said the application did not meet seven specific standards that were reviewed by county school system administrators.

“There were just some holes in the application,” Walker said.

She added, “They just didn’t meet the level of what we felt needed to be happening for a charter school.”

West Virginia’s legislature approved the establishment of charter schools last year after months of debate on an omnibus education bill. Gov. Jim Justice signed the bill into law in June, 2019.

The measure allows for three charter schools to be opened in the state but requires local approval within 90 days of an application.

Charter schools would be part of the state’s public education system and would be given greater latitude in exchange for the possibility of losing their right to operate if they fail.

The Cardinal Institute, a West Virginia think tank that supports charter schools, described the Monongalia County vote as unfortunate.

Garrett Ballengee

“At the end of the day, charter schools are simply about giving an additional option to families who might be looking for something different or unique for their own child. The Monongalia County Board of Education’s decision, for now, shuts that opportunity down for thousands of students in Monongalia and Preston counties,” said Garrett Ballengee, director of the Cardinal Institute.

“I think this points to a fatal flaw in the law itself by giving a competitor’s veto to the county school board with very few options for recourse.”

He said few states have given local school boards the sole power to veto charter school applicants.

“I suspect we haven’t seen the end of this battle in Monongalia County, however, and I have little doubt that the West Virginia Legislature is keeping a very close eye on how this progresses as it readies itself for the 2021 legislative session,” Ballengee said.

Monongalia education association
Heather Nestor

The Monongalia County Education Association had opposed the charter school application. Heather Nestor, president of the local teachers union, expressed concern that a new charter school would have spread local resources thinner while not actually providing a substantially different education offering.

“The need for it just isn’t there,” Nestor said. “If they were offering something that our schools didn’t already offer, I could see — if it were some kind of magnet school or some type of art school or STEM school programs that aren’t already in our schools, maybe we could take that gamble.

“I’m just not sure why you would want to create another school where you’re not sure how it’s going to be staffed, even the physical location of the buildings. I feel like taking a gamble with that amount of money at this point, they just needed to have things more in place if they really want this school here.”

Walker said it’s possible a charter school application could meet muster in the future. But, she said, it’s hard to imagine how.

“I think that possibility’s always out there,” she said. “But I think there’s going to have to be an exemplary program that is put out that would meet the needs of all students and all families that may want to apply to go to a charter school in our county. We have excellent schools in Monongalia County, and I think it’s going to be hard for someone to come up with something better than the educational programs we’re currently providing.

“This application was not able to meet the standards in enough areas for us to consider it.”

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