A Santa Fe-based online charter school that received orders from the state to close this summer will get to operate for at least one more semester under a state District Court judge’s recent ruling.

First Judicial District Judge Francis Mathew said in his mid-June decision that New Mexico Connections Academy can continue to serve students while a lawsuit appealing the revocation of its state charter proceeds through the court system.

“The appellants will suffer irreparable injury if a stay is not granted,” Mathew wrote, adding there is “reasonable likelihood the appellants will prevail on the merits of the appeal.”

State Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski ordered the school to close earlier this year, saying it had failed to properly educate students. His decision followed a recommendation in December by the Public Education Commission, a 10-member panel charged with approving or denying charter school applicants.

The commission had voted 6-3 to reject the 5-year-old school’s request for a charter renewal on the grounds that its student proficiency rates in math had dropped to 11 percent and that the school had received an F for two years in a row from the state.

Leaders of the New Mexico Connections Academy filed a District Court lawsuit in April challenging that decision. The complaint argued the state had not defined its “standards of excellence” and said factors other than state grades should be used to determine a charter school’s status.

The virtual academy initially was scheduled to close June 30.

Mark Boitano, a former Republican state senator who was one of the first backers of the academy, said although Mathew’s decision buys the school more time, the charter revocation already has taken a toll. Last year, the school served about 1,900 students in 33 counties. Just 1,100 of them are enrolled for the next school year, Boitano said.

The school also has lost about 20 teachers, he said, and former head of school Ramoncita Arguello, whose one-year contract expired in June, is not returning, so the school is seeking a new leader.

“I’m surprised that so many families decided to stay with us,” Boitano said. “That’s evidence that the product they found is something that is valuable to them.”

No court date has been set for a hearing on the lawsuit. Even if the school loses its appeal to stay open long-term, Boitano said, he doubts the judge would close the school midyear.

New Mexico Connections Academy is part of the Baltimore-based Connections Education LLC, which operates virtual schools in about 30 states. Connections Education is part of the British-owned private education giant Pearson Education Corp., which also sells textbooks and tests to New Mexico for use in public schools.

The academy had a rocky start, with the Public Education Commission initially denying its application for a charter. Then-Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera overturned the denial, however. The commission tried to challenge Skandera’s decision in court but failed.

Ruszkowski said this week that the school’s charter deserves to be revoked.

“New Mexico Connections Academy has earned two consecutive F’s — under-serving most of the school’s 2,000 students and not living up to its promises to families,” he said. “In an effort to better serve students, the Public Education Commission, the New Mexico Public Education Department and a hearing officer all concurred that the school’s charter should be revoked.”

Patricia Gipson, chairwoman of the Public Education Commission, agreed, saying she was disappointed with the judge’s ruling. “It’s unfortunate that this is the way the system is set up,” she said. Another school that had its charter revoked, Taos International School, also received court approval to remain open while an appeal is pending, she added.

New Mexico Connections Academy is one of three virtual charter schools in the state. The other two are the Pecos Connections Academy in Carlsbad, also part of Connections Education LLC, and the New Mexico Virtual Academy, chartered by the Farmington school district.

Advocates of online schools maintain they are at the cutting edge of education because they require students to master technology, allow students to work at their own pace and accommodate students with special needs who struggle in a mainstream classroom environment. But opponents counter that such schools draw public funding away from traditional public schools and don’t necessarily show better results.

Online schools’ connections to private, for-profit corporations also have raised concerns about the potential privatization of public schools.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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