Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Loudoun County School board rejects Gulen Charter application
School Board Rejects Charter School Application
Danielle Nadler | Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 11:30 am
Loudoun County will have to wait for a charter school.
After six months of public hearings, work sessions and heated debates, the School Board denied an application for the Loudoun Math & IT Academy public charter school at its meeting Tuesday.
Board members cited a long list of shortfalls in the proposal for the charter school, including curriculum inadequacies, a poorly thought out transportation plan, a governing board lacking educators and a budget that assumed hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants.
“As much as I wanted to support this effort, I can’t support this application,” School Board member Jeff Morse (Dulles) said. “It is lacking.”
Bill Fox (Leesburg) was the only board member to vote against the motion to deny the application. He suggested suspending the decision to give the applicants six more months to improve their proposal; however, his amendment died for lack of a second.
“I believe that the application can be fixed,” Fox said. “Not that it necessarily would be fixed if we granted it another six months, but it certainly could be fixed. It’s within the realm of possibility.”
But even he called the application, “problematic, at best.”
The application, led by Loudoun County parents Ali Gokce and Fatih Kandil, aimed to open a sixth- through 12th grade public charter school for 575 students with a focus on math and technology.
Of all of the inadequacies School Board members listed, a lack of community support was repeated most.
Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) pointed to the applicants’ less than stellar instructional plan that still remains unclear. But, she added, even if the proposed school’s curriculum was “air tight,” she would still not support the application because few parents, educators or students have backed it.
“A strong public support of a charter is imperative,” Turgeon said. “We as a system do not assign students to these schools—families have to choose to go to these schools.”
The proposal for the Loudoun Math & IT Academy was modeled after Chesapeake Science Point, a charter school both Gokce and Kandil helped open in Anne Arundel, MD. But as Gokce and Kandil repeatedly pointed to Chesapeake Science Point as an example Loudoun could follow throughout the past several months, flaws came to light about the school’s financial inadequacies and problems with its special education program.
“I think the biggest problem I had is CSP has been open for six or seven years now, and I would think that the curriculum would be completely nailed down by now, and it’s not,” Morse said. “And that to me speaks to the whole governing body, and that is the model school for this school.”
DROP CAPThe early stages of the review process for the Loudoun Math & IT Academy looked promising. The application was first made public last April, just as education and business leaders gathered for a rare pro-charter school forum in Ashburn. The event did not endorse a specific charter application, but advocated public charter schools as a means to offer Loudoun families more educational choice.
Around that same time, School Board members were bussed to Anne Arundel County’s Chesapeake Science Point to get a visual for what could be possible in Loudoun. At the dais Tuesday, Morse mentioned that trip, saying, “I can’t tell you the enthusiasm I felt when we started this process.”
Also last spring, letters of support poured in for the proposed Loudoun Math & IT Academy. Almost every state legislator representing Loudoun County, as well as several Loudoun County supervisors and a handful of business leaders, penned letters. And in June, the Virginia Board of Education approved the charter application just as the then-newly elected School Board members pushed through a new vetting policy for charter applications that is more charter school-friendly than the previous board’s policy.
However, as the application came to the local level, and school leaders thumbed through the 100-page document, they continually cited a lack of detail in the applicants’ instruction, financial and staffing plans. The school system senior staff told the School Board last fall the application was incomplete, and in December, the Charter School Select Committee, made up of three School Board members, recommended the full board deny the charter application.
“The application appears to say whatever the committee wants to hear, but not with any detail,” Morse said in December. “Are we willing to place our children in the precise environment detailed in the LMITA application with the leadership and management proposed? To this, I vote no.”
DROP CAP Amid the talks of the charter school’s hiring practices or how many buses it could provide was a community debate over the applicants’ credentials.
Since the applicants first pitched their idea for a public charter school with technology-heavy curriculum, a vocal group of about two dozen rose up to deter their efforts. The group, led by Jo-Ann Chase, Loudoun resident and former candidate for the House of Delegates, voiced concerns to School Board members almost every time the board microphone was open. Opponents claim the applicants have ties to a movement of Turkish Muslims opening a string of charter schools across the nation, under the direction of modern Islam leader Fethullah Gulen.
In that vein, Ashburn resident David Soloman during Tuesday’s public input session warned School Board members that today the nation’s enemies do not wear uniforms, but become a part of the society.
“When I served in the military I took an oath to protect our country from enemies both abroad and domestic,” Soloman said. “We have domestic enemies right here.”
At the School Board’s final work session on the application last week, Kandil addressed the allegations, saying he and his fellow applicants have no affiliation with the Gulen movement. “The only affiliation this school will have is to the Loudoun County School Board, the Virginia Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education.”
Before their votes Tuesday, board members spoke against accusations that their decisions were based on the applicants’ race or religion. Debbie Rose (Algonkian) said she’s received “insistent phone calls, emails” and certified mail accusing her and other board members of their opposition to the charter school being racially motivated. Rose said her decision was based solely on a lack of public interest.
The few community members who have voiced their support for the charter school spoke of a dire need for people trained in cyber security—a need they said the charter school could meet.
“There are multiple job openings in information security that cannot be filled,” Nicolas Frangia of South Riding told board members Tuesday. “This is a national security issue.”
Several board members noted that the several positives of the months-long process brought to light a lack of information security curriculum within the county’s public schools. Morse extended an invitation to the applicants to team with the school system’s senior staff to help “us provide world class IT and cyber security curriculum for LCPS students.”
Board members weren’t shy to show their willingness to work with future charter school applicants. The current School Board has been outspoken about their support for the possibility of opening a charter school in Loudoun.
“If any applicant wants to open a charter school in Loudoun County, then you need to impress us with what you’re offering,” Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run) said. “It has to be a better way of doing things.”
Under Virginia law, the board must identify the reasons for denying the application in writing to both the applicant and the State Board of Education. The applicants also have a right to appeal the School Board’s decision.