Decision delayed on cyber charter school: Opinions mixed on board of education

Oxford Board of Education members seem to have mixed opinions on whether or not the district should authorize a cyber charter school.

Fortunately, the board now has until the end of February to make its decision.

At a Jan. 23 meeting, Director of International Operations Jill Lemond, who was asked by Superintendent Tim Throne to further research this proposal alongside her regular duties, gave a presentation to the board.

Although the board was originally expected to make its decision at this meeting regarding a recent proposal by Connections Education/Pearson requesting Oxford Schools authorize a cyber school of excellence (cyber charter school) called Lighthouse Connections Academy, no action was taken so as to give members more time to learn about the process.

Lemond also announced that the district will be searching for other possible cyber charter partnerships over the next few weeks (see the public notice on Page 6).

“We have a recommendation for a very strong partner, Pearson. But we want to make sure that we open up a window that is competitive for anyone else who may want to work with us . . . We are open to any other entities that may want to apply to work with us,” Lemond said.

For more information on Connections Education/Pearson’s proposal, read “Cyber charter school network asks district to serve as authorizer” at www.oxfordleader.com.

Connections Education, a part of a global learning company Pearson, is a provider of high-quality online education solutions for schools, school districts, and students in grades K–12.

Connections Education is accredited by AdvancED and supports a network of 34 full-time schools nationwide.

Local districts in Michigan may issue one charter contract for a cyber charter school that may operate statewide.

If its proposal is approved by the district and the state, Lighthouse would receive its own designation, separate from Oxford Schools. The cyber charter would receive its curriculum and other services from Connections Education, while Oxford Schools would act as its authorizer and fiscal agent.

At the Jan. 23 meeting, Throne said the responsibility of cyber charter oversight would fall onto him, although he would likely assign someone within the district to handle its day-to-day management so that his focus would not be pulled away from Oxford Schools.

Several board members expressed concern that a statewide cyber charter school and the oversight it would require could pull focus away from Oxford students.

“Our job is to educate Oxford kids. I’m much more concerned (about the) kids of Oxford than I am about (the) kids of anywhere else,” said Trustee Heather Shafer. “That’s my position on the board, to secure an educational opportunity for every student in Oxford . . . That’s my number one concern . . . I think it’s great we want to be the path trailblazer and educate other kids, but our job is to educate Oxford kids.”

Throne told Shafer he felt this proposal would be beneficial to Oxford students as it would generate additional revenue for the district.

As the cyber charter’s authorizer, Oxford Schools would be permitted to retain up to 3 percent of the total school aid received by the charter school.

“This is, to me, an argument for authorization,” Throne said. “At the end of the day . . . we (would) get 3 percent of the overall revenue generated. Take the cyber charter’s number of students, take their state foundation allowance, multiply that together by 3 percent . . . that’s how much revenue we get back. We think we can (oversee the cyber charter) for less (money) than we would generate.”

Additionally, Throne stated Pearson already serves as a partner to the district and that the district uses its products, such as textbooks, quite extensively.

“This is a way to leverage that relationship and that contract to give us an even larger financial return (on those products),” Throne added.

Through discussions with other school officials that have already authorized a cyber charter school, Lemond said she has been told that doing this typically offers a high level of revenue compared to the low expenditures that would be put into its maintenance.

“It would be fiscally responsible to our taxpayers with the changing landscape in education,” Lemond added. “Once it’s off the ground, from speaking with others who have had that experience, it’s a well-oiled machine . . . Once we’ve done all that and laid the groundwork correctly, it will be nearly-passive income (for the district).”

Other board members expressed concern that the establishment of a cyber charter school in Oxford would create competition for the district’s online program, the Oxford Virtual Academy (OVA).

Lemond told board members she did not feel the creation of a cyber charter school would create competition for OVA, but that it could instead benefit the virtual academy by allowing people statewide to access information on OVA through Connection Education/Pearson’s website.

She also said that charter schools have a limited number of student openings each year, which would limit its growth.

“I don’t believe (this would create competition). I believe if you are someone who wants to go to a statewide charter academy, you already have that option right now . . . This will be a third option for them to go to a Connections (Education charter school) and it would actually involve Oxford and we would be able to have a part in that process. OVA can only reach out to students in surrounding school areas and so this program will allow us to reach students anywhere in the state,” Lemond said.

Lighthouse Connections Academy would operate under its own board and administration, but would need to meet the performance standards set by the state and by Oxford Community Schools, Lemond told the board.

She also said any cyber charter school the board chose to authorize would serve as a completely separate entity from Oxford Schools and the district would not be required to handle its marketing or operation.

Following Lemond’s presentation, Trustee Jenny Guthrie requested that Lemond ask about the risks associated with cyber charter authorization as she continues her research.

“We’ve heard a lot of the benefits, but I don’t feel like we know (about the risk) side very well yet,” Guthrie added.

While Lemond said she is not aware of any risks associated with the proposal at this point, she said she will be sure to make that a focal point as she continues her research.

With approximately 2,500 cyber charter schools currently operating within the state, Throne said that cyber charter schools seem to be trending upward.

“This is 2018. Nine years ago, would any of us have called OVA our second largest school? No way,” Throne said. “When I think of education 10 years in the future, I see more walls being torn down than built up. I think the more we learn about this market (the better) . . . This district will be in a much better position 10 years from now (if we learn about it) than if we don’t,” Throne said.

Throne added he looks at this proposal as a chance to secure a stronger future for Oxford Schools.

“As your superintendent, one of my primary jobs is to not just make sure the operation of the district is going okay today, but to help make decisions that will impact us three years, six years, 10 years down the road. I think I probably get at least 10 new ideas across my desk every week. Some (I) spend a little more time on. Some (I) throw in the basket right away because it’s not us. That’s not to say that I’m saying you have to authorize this. I’m just saying that this has risen to a level that I think is (worthy) of your consideration,” Throne explained to the board.

While many board members seemed to have great skepticism surrounding this proposal, others, like President Tom Donnelly, held a more optimistic view.

“We’re trying to diversify something that we will gain (from) financially. For very little management, we get a chunk of (revenue) that comes back to our district. See it not as Oxford ‘adding a building,’ (see) it (as) a diversification investment because trends are telling us everything’s going in that direction . . . How can this come back and whiplash me? If there isn’t a whole lot of whiplash-effect, then you cautiously take a step forward. Can we get out of it if we don’t like it? These are the kinds of things we should ask,” Donnelly said.

As society becomes increasingly mobile, Trustee Korey Bailey said he felt cyber charter school authorization would be wise to look into.

“With many parents moving for work, I think this is a good way for us to capture or keep those students, instead of having them go to another district . . . First, we offer OVA. If that’s not (for them), then this is the last option that would allow them to stay with Oxford,” Bailey said.

Stepek described this proposal as “out-of-the-box” and went on to explain that he did not view this as a negative.

“Over the last 10 years, it was frankly Oxford Schools’ out-of-the-box thinking that kept us in the black . . . to the point where we weren’t discussing which programs to cut, like other districts,” said Stepek, during the board comment portion of the meeting.

“Everybody I talk to (from other districts) are deciding what to close next. We haven’t had that discussion here. I think (this proposal) is worth looking at. It is certainly something that I could see as a benefit to Oxford if it’s done right.”

Guthrie, Shafer and Bailey said they would like input from the public before making a decision and suggested holding a community meeting in the near future.

Community members were also invited to reach out to board of education members with their thoughts on the issue.

Another presentation is expected to be given regarding this proposal at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday, February 13 at Oxford High School (745 N. Oxford Rd.).

The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m.

 

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