A group intent on opening Casper’s first charter school will make another attempt to win approval from local education officials who denied their application last year.
Backers of the project say they’ve made changes to their budget in line with feedback provided by the Natrona County School Board, the body that rejected their proposal in September.
Board members, who also had concerns about community support for the project, say they are willing to keep an open mind on the matter.
The founders are a working mom, Tiffany Leary, and an instructional facilitator and former gifted and talented coordinator for the district, Wendolyn McGregor.
The two friends submitted an application to the Natrona County School Board of Trustees in early 2015 for a school offering a classical learning based curriculum, a four-and-a-half day school week and an individualized learning plan for each student.
When board members denied the application, they cited the lack of sufficient financial and management planning and an overly-optimistic approach to the challenges of instituting new curriculum.
The state Board of Education offered similar concerns when it upheld the local board’s decision after the founders’ appealed in February.
However, Leary and McGregor informed the Natrona County School Board on Aug. 8 that they would be resubmitting their application, with plans to open the school in the fall of 2017.
The Guild concept began as a possible alternative to the district’s Gifted and Talented program, meant to offer rigorous academics and smaller class sizes to above-average students. However, the school would be open to any interested families, the founders said.
Leary and McGregor were not available for an interview, but provided a statement in which they maintained their commitment to bringing classical education to Casper.
“We have not changed the application; however, we have simplified the budget as the NCSD Board of Trustees requested, and we have provided the Board of Trustees with clarifications regarding many of the statements they made in their previous denial,” the founders wrote.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but run independent of district control. They operate under a contract and must adhere to their stated mission to remain open.
School board members have yet to evaluate the re-submitted application. District workers will first review the application, which will then be returned to the organizers before the board makes a final decision.
Board member Dana Howie said she was keeping an open mind, but remembers being worried that the founders were in over their heads.
“I almost felt like they would go ahead and start and then go, ‘Oh man. We didn’t even think of this,’” she said. “They have some innovative programs. I don’t know that they were too much different from what we already have. But I’m always willing to listen.”
Howie said one of her main concerns was a lack of community support. At most, the series of public information meetings attracted 50 families, far fewer than popular programs in the district have drawn, she said.
Money was also a concern.
“I think that was everybody’s concern. What I’ve learned the last four years being on the board is that I really had no clue what it costs to run a school district,” Howie said.
Board member Paula Reid agreed that budgeting was the biggest roadblock for the Guild’s founders.
“They didn’t have a business plan,” the banker and board treasurer said. “They didn’t have good financials that I could follow. They didn’t have any back up for their management, and their management is very thin. I don’t mean that by abilities. I really don’t know that much about their ability. But they didn’t have that many people.”
Reid said she was willing to give the Guild the opportunity, but was unenthusiastic about the prospect.
“It does impact us financially,” she said. Money for charter schools comes from funds diverted from the district.
“That is hard for us to say, ‘well it’s OK.’” Reid said. “But the reality is the law says we can’t use that as a reason not to give them their opportunity.”
If the Guild’s new application addresses the board’s original concerns, they are likely to get approval, she said.
“We just have to look at that with an open mind. It is not that we are completely against anything,” she said. “We just have to be sure that it is going to be the right thing for the kids.”
The school’s founders will hold informational meetings at 2 p.m. Aug. 27 and 6:30 p.m. Sept 12 at the Natrona County Library.