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Charter association rejects school's contract: Mountain Oak plans to appeal

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier<br>Jeffrey Holmes teaches his sixth-grade class a history lesson Thursday afternoon at Mountain Oak School in Prescott.

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier<br>Jeffrey Holmes teaches his sixth-grade class a history lesson Thursday afternoon at Mountain Oak School in Prescott.

PRESCOTT - Mountain Oak Charter School remains open this year, but after 15 years of operation, its future is uncertain.

Members of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools voted not to renew the school's new 20-year charter contract at a Jan. 13 meeting in Phoenix.

Mountain Oak Charter School Governing Board President Anna Carnegie-Marx said the school is appealing that decision in court, however. Should the appeal not gain any momentum, the school could close at the end of the current school year.

About 150 students in kindergarten through eighth grade attend classes at Mountain Oak. A preschool also is located on the site.

"We're getting counsel right now and the information we've received indicates we have a pretty good chance of being successful in our appeal," Marx said. "We're not planning on closing our doors any time soon. We're going to fight this and move forward."

Marx said 2013 proved to be a challenging year for everyone involved in the school. On Oct. 23, two students and a staff member from the school were killed in a head-on collision on Outer Loop Road. Twenty-three-year-old Julianna Hersh, a kindergarten assistant at Mountain Oak, Jessa Hersh, 9, and Jeremiah Hersh, 13, lost their lives in the fatal crash.

"Our priority is always how we take care of our family and how we take care of our community," Marx said. "When that tragedy happened, that was our focus. It was devastating."

Issues cited by the charter board in their executive summary included a decline in academic performance and administrative matters, such as fingerprint clearance card renewals and common core system documentation. Staff, including school director Elizabeth Wildemaan, have prepared for the new curriculum, however, for a number of years, Marx said.

"We're not a failing school by any stretch, but some of these things didn't get done in a timely manner," she said. "To have them deny our charter was a bit of a surprise to say the least."

Many of the non-compliant issues, she added, have already been cleared up.

Notifications regarding the charter association's decision not to renew the charter were sent to parents of students at the school last week.

Charter schools, Marx said, are held to rigorous standards, which she said Mountain Oak supports and encourages.

"We want to make sure we provide an excellent education for our students," she said. "We've had a huge outpouring of parent support. I hear story after story from parents that tell us how much they value their education. What's really beautiful is hearing from kids who are now in high school (or) have graduated and are now college students."

According to Arizona State Board for Charter Schools Executive Director DeAnna Rowe, Mountain Oak's charter is set to expire in August.

"Without the approval of a renewal, or without a successful appeal, the school would close at the end of the school year," she said. "The appeal process is an opportunity that is afforded to any charter holder where renewal is denied."

Successful appeals following denial of a charter are not unprecedented, Rowe said, though past appeals succeeded under a different process. The board recently adopted a new Academic Performance framework that could change the way approvals are handled, she continued. The academic performance framework allows the state board to take a closer look at charter schools throughout the state on a more frequent basis.

Should their appeal not find approval, Marx said school officials would look at other options. What those options are, she said, are being kept under wraps per legal counsel.

"We have a consultant and are working with a lawyer. All of this will be in place by next week," Marx said. "We're mobilizing and getting things done and we've already had a community meeting with our parents. At this point we do have some backup plans, but we're focusing on winning this appeal."

Marx said Mountain Oak is one of the first schools to be rated under the association's new academic performance model.

"What the charter board really wants show is that they have the academic standards in place, they're committed to following college and career standards, and really setting an example for everybody else. We want to be on board with that too. We want to make sure we're at the same level the charter board requires," Marx said.

Follow Patrick Whitehurst on Twitter @pwdcourier

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