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School Board Quashes Charter School Plans

Unanimous vote follows recommendations from a review board, Superintendent Starr and his predecessor Weast against the approval citing security, daily operations and experience of founders.

The Montgomery County board of education on Thursday unanimously voted not to approve plans for the proposed Seneca Creek Public Charter School during a meeting held at the Carver Education Center in Rockville.

The proposed charter school, with classes from kindergarten through eighth grade, planned to use the environment as a learning tool placing emphasis on natural sciences, community-based studies and outdoor education at the Well Spring camping facility after renovations. It would have been the first charter school in Germantown.

A panel comprised of community representatives, staff members from across several MCPS departments, the school system’s chief operating officer and members of three MCPS employee associations had met with some of the school’s founders. But after the panel asked for clarifications and reviewed the charter school plan, former superintendent Jerry Weast’s recommendation was to deny the charter school’s application.

Areas of concern to the reviewing panel included the safety and security of the location, curriculum, staff experience, finances and daily operations like transport and lunch for students.

Making remarks prior to the vote, board member Laura Berthiaume said while she had attended an inquiry-based learning facility with experiential learning like the one proposed, Seneca Creek applicants needed a better plan before taking in students.

“I don’t think that students can have cold lunches for an entire year,” Berthiaume said.

 Board member Patricia O’Neill said that apart from healthy and adequate nutrition, she had concerns about approving the charter school because the founders did not seem to have considered the long-term requirements of their project.

“I have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers but most importantly I have sworn an oath,” O’Neill said. “I want to protect the health and safety interests of children.”

Board member Michael A. Durso, board vice president Shirley Brandman and Alan Xie, the board’s student member, similarly voiced doubts over the applicant’s preparedness to run an educational facility long term.

Krisna Becker, one of the charter school’s founders, said the county lost an opportunity to provide Montgomery County school children with a great choice for school. She said the review process was unclear and that the board often mischaracterized what they said.

“I am not sure we were in the same meeting,” Becker said. “When they cite security concerns, they were expecting us to provide security staff but when they question their own security person about what they provide at MCPS elementary schools, there's no security staff. They are expecting more from us than a regular MCPS school.”

Mary Rivkin, an associate professor with University of Maryland College Park, had petitioned the board on behalf of Seneca Creek. Rivkin said she was deeply disappointed that the board had voted against the charter school because charter schools offered choices to families, children and teachers who might like a different way to approach their responsibilities.

“I hope the founding board will not give up even though this is very discouraging,” Rivkin said.” The example of Crossways having to try twice is perhaps relevant. The Environment as an Integrating Context is really is what is needed today, given children's lack of outdoor time and the severity of climate change — children today will need the tools to adapt to a rapidly changing world.” 

Becker said there were no immediate plans to appeal the decision pending a meeting with the other 13 founders.

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