Districts want charter schools to coordinate on building plans, but opponents smell a power grab

Administrators at two elementary schools located side by side in North Las Vegas didn’t put much thought to the construction project at the lot next door except to worry a bit about keeping kids out of the work site.

But then one day the principal of Addeliar Guy Elementary School took a closer look at the paperwork posted on the fence and learned, to her surprise, that a brand new charter school was taking shape there.

Clark County School District lobbyist Craig Stevens told lawmakers the story Wednesday to make the case for a bill, AB78, that would keep the local district in the know about when and where charter schools plan to launch. The construction project in North Las Vegas is expected to temporarily close the sidewalks students use to get to class, will tap into their water main and could generate more traffic at the same time parents are dropping their children off at the two existing schools.

“Given enough time, we could figure out these issues,” Stevens said, noting that the bulk of communication between the regular schools and the charter happen via the construction crew. “Instead, these decisions are happening day to day, and we believe they could cause a severe disruption to student learning.”

But critics saw more nefarious motives in the bill, which requires the sponsor of a proposed charter school to consult with the district to discuss whether starting a new school and placing it at the chosen location was a prudent use of public money and meets the needs of students in the area. It also required evidence of community support for the charter school.

Republican Assemblyman Keith Pickard said the bill seemed paternalistic — an assertion from districts that they knew better than charter operators. And the requirements that charters provide information to school districts that are their competitors could “prime the weapon” that would later be used against them, allowing districts to muster opposition when the charter school project comes up for final approval, he said.

Other opponents described it as an overreach.

“CCSD, by placing a moratorium of its own on new district charter schools, has already made its position clear that it is not in favor of charter school expansion,” said Pat Hickey, the former assemblyman who’s now at the helm of the Charter School Association of Nevada. “If CCSD wants the ability to regulate charter schools, the district should again sponsor charter schools and regulate them as they (choose).”

Republican Assemblywoman Jill Tolles suggested the hangup was in the term “consultation,” and said requiring that charters “notify” the district about their plans might be more palatable.

Supporters of the bill emphasized that traditional schools and charters need to coordinate and strategize for the good of the community overall. And Stevens said several times that the bill wouldn’t give districts “veto power” over charters’ plan.

But what it would do, according to supporter Anna Slighting of the education advocacy group H.O.P.E. (Honoring Our Public Education) for Nevada, would ensure that the public funds that support both traditional and charter schools are used wisely.

She recalled that a charter school in the Summerlin area was in the works around the same time that Nevada lawmakers decided last session to extend construction bonds. The new money finally allowed the Billy and Rosemary Vassiliadis Elementary School to go forward, but the board that made that decision wasn’t aware of the charter a few blocks away that would have eased crowding anyway.

“Because of the small relief the charter school provided to the surrounding schools, CCSD could’ve held off on that Summerlin location for a few more years and used those valuable new construction resources on any number of possibilities,” Slighting said. “I see this as a responsible way to spend public money.”