February 14, 2019 | 3:05 pm
Years after charter school divided rural community, some see broken promises while others note academic progress
Two years ago, the Oklahoma State Board of Education for the first time exercised its authority to approve a rural charter school.
The decision was contentious. A local school board had already denied the charter’s application twice, saying it was incomplete and there wasn’t enough support for the school.
The State Board overturned the local board’s decision, which left some wondering who’s really in control of their community.
That charter school — The Academy of Seminole — has now been open for about six months, with 32 students enrolled across 9th and 10th grades.
In its application to the State Board of Education, the charter’s proponents forecasted having a minimum of 30 kids in year one and a maximum of 60.
Paul Campbell, the local businessman who started the school, said he wanted a higher enrollment this first year, but said the school stopped recruiting too soon. He also said drama surrounding the charter school’s creating scared parents away.
“There were still a lot of reluctant parents because it was such a polarizing subject,” he said. “People stopped talking to each other because of this issue.”
The charter will offer more grades next year, and Campbell said about 60 additional kids have already signed up.
Alfred Gaches, superintendent of Seminole Public Schools — the local district that denied the charter application — said the charter’s enrollment numbers bolster his argument that the school never had much community support in the first place.
“Not only are they not Seminole students, but they’re taking students from all the surrounding areas as well and can still only generate 32,” he said.
The debate over whether Seminole needed a charter school started in 2016.
Campbell, the CEO of a local aerospace company, said he was trying to hire more people, but potential employees kept turning him down because they weren’t impressed with Seminole Public Schools.
Campbell said he offered financial support to the district, but school board members rejected the funding, so the businessman took advantage of a new state law allowing him to start a rural charter school.
After the local district twice denied his application, Campbell appealed to the Oklahoma State Board of Education.
The January 2017 board meeting about the appeal was tense. Gaches, the Seminole Public Schools superintendent, defended his school board’s decision to deny the application —and charter proponents disputed him.
Three main issues kept coming up as state board members decided whether or not to approve the charter school.
Community support was one of them.
The law says charter applicants have to show that residents within the school district boundaries support the charter; Gaches argued surveys showed the charter school did not have that support.
But during the meeting, state board members saw a lack of community support for the district from another angle: Seminole Public Schools had recently asked residents to vote ‘yes’ on two bond proposals to replace its deteriorating high school building. Both failed.
Another sticking point that day was academic performance.
Campbell and other charter supporters argued Seminole Public Schools weren’t performing well. Campbell told State Board members that parents didn’t want to put their kids in a school that averaged a 19.5 on the ACT college entrance exam.
He told Board members his charter school would be heavily focused on science and math and laid out plans to hire a Texas-based company to provide the academic curriculum.
Superintendent Gaches countered that Seminole Public School students already achieved higher scores than kids using the Texas company’s framework.
Now, however, Gaches says the argument is irrelevant.
“Things they boasted about in their original application just aren’t coming true,” he said.
Just a few months after the state board approved its application, the Seminole Academy’s backers decided not to use the Texas-based company and opted to delay the opening of the school so they could write their own curriculum instead.
State board members approved those changes at a meeting in May 2017, spending less than five minutes discussing them.
Seminole superintendent Gaches questioned whether it’s fair to approve a charter school’s application and later allow it to revise its curriculum.
Former Republican State Rep. Lee Denney, who is on the charter school’s board and authored the legislation allowing for rural charters, called the changes growing pains.
“I didn’t feel like we were backtracking,” she said. “It probably looked that way to the outside. A lot of it was just being the first and forging new ground, and making decisions that would best fit our new school.”
It’s too early to tell whether the charter is performing better or worse than the local school district, but charter founder Campbell said benchmark tests show students have improved dramatically in the short time it’s been open. He also said the charter has helped him hire at least two people.
Eight months after the state board overturned the Seminole school board’s decision to reject the charter school, the local community made a third attempt at passing a bond issue. This time, they were successful.
Seminole superintendent Gaches said nearly 70 percent of district residents supported the measure and a new high school building is set to open by the end of this year.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add context from the interview with Paul Campbell.