A divided state Board of Education agreed by a 5-2 vote to sponsor a language immersion charter school in Norman, despite concerns raised by the state superintendent on the school’s likelihood to be successful.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister was one of two “no” votes on the appeal of Le Monde International School in Norman; Cathryn Franks was the other. And despite the yes vote from board member Leo Baxter, he, too, had serious concerns.
“This is not the kind of charter I like because it impacts very few children and none of them are needy,” Baxter said.
But board member Bill Price, who voted to approve, emphasized the enthusiasm and dedication of the parents behind the effort to open the school, which sprang from a successful language immersion program within a Norman Public Schools elementary that was discontinued in 2016 due to budget constraints.
“The idea of charter schools is innovation, and this is the essence of innovation,” Price said.
It’s the second charter school the state board has taken on this year. In January, the board unanimously approved the Academy of Seminole.
The Norman Public School board had twice denied sponsorship of the school after months of vetting its application.
Joseph Siano, Norman Public Schools’ superintendent, told the state board the charter proposal didn’t live up to the district’s standards in the areas of finance, curriculum and personnel.
Two of the potential locations for the school are churches, another reason Siano recommended last month the school board deny the school’s application.
The Seminole charter plans to share space with a public college.
However, late Wednesday, CrossPointe Church Pastor Mike Butler said that he rescinded the church’s agreement with the school in December and no longer intends to lease space to the school. That contrasted with the school’s appeal to the board, which was dated Feb. 24 and written by attorney Bill Hickman, maintaining that CrossPointe is the primary location.
Hickman told the board Thursday he wasn’t aware of the offer being rescinded, and didn’t have evidence in writing of it.
Oklahoma law requires charters to be nonsectarian in all operations and not affiliated with any religious institution. But a 2012 state attorney general opinion states the law does not prohibit a charter school student from accessing or receiving instruction at a faith-based institution.
The Le Monde application provides five potential locations for the school. The primary option is CrossPointe Church in south Norman and the second option is Norman Community Church of the Nazarene in the northern part of the city. Pastors from both churches have agreed in writing to lease the school space, records show.
(Three additional alternative locations for the school are not churches.)
In a six-page memo to the Norman school board dated Feb. 3, Siano took issue with the relationship between Le Monde and the church. Because the school and church would share the space, the arrangement “raises questions about the nature and extent of control that Le Monde would have over the facilities,” possibly violating the First Amendment and provoking expensive litigation, he wrote.
He questioned whether religious symbols, messages or materials in areas of the church that would be used by the school would be removed at all times during the school’s use of the space.
Texas auditors, for instance, found it nearly impossible for charter schools operating in churches to avoid spending state funds on students in ways that also benefited the church, according to a New York Times story.
Proponents, though, say the arrangements can work well, as church buildings are often empty during the week. And there is precedent for such arrangements in Oklahoma. Norman Public Schools teaches pre-K in several local churches and Santa Fe South, a charter school, opened in 2001 in a church basement.
Jody Britt, vice president of the Le Monde board of directors, reserved comment on the potential location of the school until after the board meeting. She said the families who proposed the school have worked for over a year to develop a high-quality school plan that complies with the law.
“The parents and our children are committed to this education model—and it is the children who are at the very heart of this plan,” she said.
An earlier version of this story contained the incorrect vote tally. The board voted 5-2 to approve the appeal.