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Colorado Springs district set for vote on fate of Colorado's first military charter school

August 23, 2016 Updated: August 23, 2016 at 10:00 pm
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An organization that trains veterans to become principals and teachers has started a movement to open what would be Colorado's first military-style K-12 charter school at Peterson Air Force Base next fall.

To reach that goal, School Leaders for America this month started jumping through the first of many bureaucratic hoops. Charter schools must apply for authorization to the district in which the school would be located or ask the district to relinquish its chartering authority to the state's Colorado Charter School Institute.

The proposed location for Colorado Military Academy is in the boundaries of Colorado Springs School District 11. The district's board will vote Wednesday whether to relinquish chartering authority for the school to the state.

Charter schools are semi-autonomous, but the chartering authority has input into the school's operations and finances, along with monitoring rights.

Organizers would rather receive charter authorization through D-11, said John Evans, executive director of the Parker-based School Leaders for America.

"We like D-11," he said. "It's home, and we would prefer to be part of the district".

But bringing the school into the D-11 fold would come at a high price.

Adding 435 students of projected first-year enrollment would cost D-11 $2.2 million next school year and millions more in subsequent years because of Colorado's school funding formula, said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer.

"The bottom line is given how many challenges we've had in the last five to 10 years, do we want to go into next year's budget with an assumption we'll start with a $2 million deficit?" he said at an Aug. 10 board meeting.

Evans and others affiliated with the school pitched their idea at that meeting. The matter is an action item on Wednesday's agenda.

Colorado Military Academy would combine moral core values and leadership training with project-based learning emphasizing science, technology, engineering and math, Evans said. Students would follow a code of conduct, wear uniforms and have a rigorous curriculum taught by ex-military staff.

Organizers are considering one facility for an elementary and middle school and another for a high school. Evans said both locations would be directly outside the gates of Peterson, to eliminate checkpoint issues.

D-11's board members hailed the concept as unique, innovative and likely to succeed in Colorado Springs, which has five military installations.

Member Theresa Null, an Army retiree, said she likes the format and thinks the proposed school would be a popular option for parents. Board member James Mason said the school would help increase D-11 enrollment, which has been a goal because the district has been losing student population for years.

Colorado Military Academy could attract students from other districts, which Mason said "is what we always said we want to address."

Adding Colorado Military Academy to its ranks would be attractive for D-11 because it would provide another educational choice, one that seems destined to be a good fit for the Pikes Peak region and could pay off in the long run.

"In the near term, yes, it impacts our money, but we've got to look further down the road," Mason said at the last board meeting.

D-11 is one of 94 school districts out of 178 statewide that has declining enrollment, according to the state's education department.

Under Colorado's Public School Finance Act, a school district with declining enrollment does not receive full state funding for adding students until the district hits a certain threshold of growth.

Instead, those districts do enrollment averaging, meaning they average up to four prior years of enrollment into the current year's counts.

"The idea is to help them so if they lose students they don't have to drastically cut their budget," said Mary Lynn Christel, a principal consultant for the Colorado Department of Education's school finance division.

In some years, the averaging works in the district's favor and in some years it doesn't. And to earn back all of per-pupil funding, districts with declining enrollment need to be out of the cycle of averaging their enrollment.

Over the past five years, enrollment has decreased by 5.3 percent in D-11, the region's oldest and largest district with about 28,000 students.

"We would get full funding once we're out of averaging," Gustafson said. "Getting there is going to be extremely painful."

But whether Colorado Military Academy is chartered under D-11 or the state, it "would still be a school in District 11 boundaries serving kids," Gustafson said.

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