The Alsea School Board is on the verge of finalizing plans to convert the district’s lone school into a charter school, a change that will allow the district to advertise the school and run buses into other districts.
Marc Thielman, Alsea’s superintendent and principal, said the change is driven by a desire to recruit more students from outside the district who would bring with them money from the state school fund. He said a driving force in the decision to make the conversion this year is the combination of rate increases for the state's Public Employees Retirement System and expected stagnant levels of state funding. The combination, he said, means the district will be burning through its reserves at an unsustainable rate to avoid program cuts.
Charter schools are allowed to advertise using public funds in a way traditional schools can’t, and they are also given more free rein to run buses into neighboring districts.
Thielman said the Alsea board voted to become a charter school April 12 after two public forums. The board will formalize its charter document at a meeting at 7 p.m. May 10, at the school, located at 301 S. Third St. in Alsea.
Charter schools typically are run by a group of parents, teachers or community members with their own board of directors and budget managers, generally at arm's length from their sponsoring school districts. Charter schools operate free from many state regulations, but must meet the same academic performance standards as traditional schools.
According to literature explaining the charter conversion in Alsea, after the 2015-16 school year, the district had an ending fund balance of nearly $750,000. At the end of this school year, district officials expect the ending fund balance to drop to $315,000, a decline they expected to continue without a boost in enrollment.
Thielman said even bringing in just a handful of additional students would help Alsea, which state enrollment records say had 140 students this school year.
Thielman said while Alsea does not offer as many programs as some of the schools it competes against, it does have a small school atmosphere that many parents and students prefer to larger schools. He said the school can also offer smaller class sizes, with on average 18 students in elementary classes
“We can work with every student on an individual level,” said Katie Sapp, the district’s business manager. Sapp added that part of the appeal of studying in Alsea is that no students are cut from any sports teams, and there is no charge for sports.
She said many students who don't participate much in extracurricular activities in larger schools come to Alsea and get involved in everything.
“I don’t work with kids, and I still know everyone’s names," Sapp added.
The school already gets about 20 percent of its students from outside the district, an amount Thielman said has fallen since 2013, when the state Legislature changed regulations on open enrollment districts like Alsea so that they could no longer advertise with its public funds.
The district had previously considered converting to a charter school in 2014, to take advantage of a state policy that would allow additional state funding to a district with just one school that converted to charter status. But that loophole since has been closed.
Thielman said at the time of that charter proposal the community was skeptical of the plan, because parents didn’t want a charter that would allow nonlicensed teachers to work for the school. Another complication was that the model of charter school the district was considering would have required both a school board and a charter board — a challenging proposition in a small town. (Alsea has an open position on the school board for which no one has filed in the May 16 election.)
However, Thielman said the charter the board is finalizing will specify that only licensed teachers can teach in Alsea, and the school won’t have a separate charter board. The district has been promoting this as a “no-change charter,” saying it primarily wants the flexibility to recruit students that charter status will allow.
The school, which can be reached at 541-487-4305, is open for enrollment requests now through mid-June. However, Sapp said, the board will decide next week just how many extra students to admit, with the goal of staying a 1A school and not being overwhelmed by enrollment. The district likely will set quotas for how many students it wants in each grade in the 15-to-22 student range, and if more students from outside the district apply to enroll than allowed by a quota, the district will use a lottery to select students.
Sapp said just how many students will be admitted at the elementary level may be complicated because currently the school combines grade levels at the elementary level, but if they have enough enrollment in certain grades they may create separate classrooms.
Sapp said the district runs a bus route to Philomath, Monroe and Alpine for about 20 students, but that route also includes stops for in-district students.
Thielman said if the district has about five students from Corvallis enroll, it will extend its out-of-district route to Corvallis and make it a dedicated route that does not stop for in-district students, so even though it is a longer distance, the ride will not be longer than an hour.