The Santa Fe school board late Tuesday gave a cold reception to the state-chartered Monte del Sol Charter School’s attempt to rejoin the local school district, citing concerns with the secondary school’s finances.
District staff told the board a review of the school’s books over the summer found missing financial data, a lack of oversight of the budgeting process and a need for $16 million in facility upgrades.
“Their audit will be our audit, and we’ll get dinged on that,” Superintendent Veronica García said of Monte del Sol. “That is the major concern. It’s wonderful to say that we can provide them the support to get them where we would like them to be, but I don’t know that we have the capacity to do that.”
Board member Maureen Cashmon was not present as the board voted to table until Sept. 3 a decision on Monte del Sol’s application to become chartered by the local school district. Monte del Sol has until Oct. 1 to apply for authorization by either Santa Fe Public Schools or the Public Education Commission, a 10-person elected body that oversees state charter schools.
Alan Brauer, director of the charter school division at the state Public Education Department, said schools choose to be under district control in order to have access to athletic fields, school buses, administrative support and other services.
“District charters have the opportunity to use facilities owned by the school district and tap into transportation, food services and other cost-saving measures that are really difficult for charters to receive if they don’t have those partnerships,” Brauer said. “That’s typically the big reason why charters want to work with districts — you can just get further, faster together.”
About half of the 99 charter schools in New Mexico are state charters.
While Monte del Sole could benefit from financial services and facility upgrades by rejoining the district, district staff and school board members were clear Tuesday night that they worry Monte del Sol requires more support than the district can provide.
“This is the kind of thing that can torpedo a large institution,” school board President Kate Noble said in reference to the district’s study of Monte del Sol’s finances. “These sorts of problems can suck you into a whirlpool if they’re not minded.”
Monte del Sol, founded in 2000 as the first charter high school in Santa Fe, enrolled 349 seventh through twelfth grade students last school year. It operated within Santa Fe Public Schools before receiving authorization as a state charter school ahead of the 2015-16 school year.
Head of School Robert Jessen said he is not worried about Monte del Sol receiving authorization from the Public Education Commission for the 2020-21 school year if the school board ultimately denies his school’s application to rejoin the district.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m overconfident, but I really don’t think that the picture they got of Monte this summer of our practices is an accurate picture,” Jessen said. “It’s a disappointment, but expectations are always there to be managed.”
Santa Fe Public Schools Chief Financial Officer German Martinez said based on information from the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, a nonprofit that supports New Mexico charter schools, he estimates 70 percent of charter school closures are due to financial constraints and mismanagement.
Board member Steven Carrillo said in 2011 when the board voted to reauthorize the Academy for Technology and the Classics, which is currently the district’s only charter and consistently rated one of the top high schools in the state, that school faced similar financial challenges.
“ATC was a school that was going down the tubes in every way when I came on the board in 2011,” he said. “They couldn’t manage their books. They couldn’t manage their staff. Their property needed a bunch of work. There was every reason for us to say ‘You know something, it was a nice experiment, but it didn’t work.’ ”