Proposed Baltimore County charter school takes application fight to state officials

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

A group of Baltimore County parents attempting to open a nature-oriented charter school have hit roadblocks at the county level and are now taking their case to the state school board.

The founders of the proposed Watershed Public Charter School say they want to open a school that would provide students in kindergarten through eighth grade with a curriculum that emphasizes hands-on learning, creative expression and outdoor experiences. They envision a school in northwest Baltimore County with a sustainable, working farm where children learn about plants and animals and how food is harvested.

The county school board denied the group’s application in May. In their appeal to the state Department of Education, Watershed founders argue that county school administrators have put them in a catch-22 that prevents them from gaining approval to open. County school administrators want the school to have leased a facility and obtained financing to renovate the building before they give Watershed a charter. But Watershed board President Jessie Lehson said the school can’t lease a facility or borrow money without the charter.

Lehson said the school board didn’t have enough time to consider their application, and that they were prevented from making their case directly to the school board. At the two school board meetings where the charter application was discussed in May, the school system’s interim chief academic officer, Mary Boswell-McComas, presented the plan with Watershed’s founders sitting in the back of the room, prevented by the school system’s procedures from participating.

The application comes at a time when the county is trying to cope with enrollment projected to keep growing by about 1,000 students a year, a pace that has produced overcrowding at numerous schools despite constant building.

While Baltimore City’s school board has welcomed charters and now has 34 operating across the city with more than 14,000 students, the county has rarely received applications and allowed only one charter to open. Imagine Discovery Public Charter School operated for five years before closing in 2013.

The school board voted against giving Watershed a charter based on a recommendation from district staff. McComas said that while the system “is open to innovative and inquiry-based learning opportunities” and that officials “recognize the passion and vision of the Watershed members,” they believed the application should be denied based on concerns about facilities and financing.

Board members said they hadn’t been given information about the charter early enough in the process and that they hadn’t had a chance to speak to the school’s founders.

The county requires charter applicants to file a letter of intent to the school district by May 1 and an application in January of the following year. Between January and the presentation to the board in May, school administrators asked the Watershed founders questions and analyzed the application. School officials then recommend to the board whether it should give the applicant a charter.

“We requested the ability to talk to the school board directly. We were told that it was not appropriate,” said Lehson, who added that the application was 500 pages and that staff presented some inaccurate information to the board that she was not able to correct.

Board President Edward J. Gilliss said he had concerns that Watershed had contacted the school system in May 2017 with its intention to open a school, but the board heard nothing about it for almost a year. “We have missed a window of opportunity for board members to raise issues over a year,” he said.

Board member Nick Stewart agreed that the process was flawed and wished that there had been a collaborative effort. “We heard from one side and not the other side,” he said, regretting that the board didn’t hear from the charter applicants directly. “It didn’t feel like there was an equal representation.”

Stewart and Gilliss voted against giving Watershed a charter. The school was denied.

Board members said they hoped that Watershed would work through the issues and apply again. But because the May 1 deadline for submitting a letter of intent has passed, Watershed founders would not be able to get approval until 2020 and probably couldn’t open until the fall of 2021, unless the state school board overturns the county school board’s decision.

County school board members expressed concern about the timeline and said they would try to speed up the process, even if it meant changing a policy.

Lehson said that everyone involved in the Watershed effort is a volunteer, and it is difficult to see how they would sustain the work for two more years without the assurance the school will open.

The state school board will not act on the appeal before the end of September, according to state officials.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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