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Napa school board rejects proposed Mayacamas Charter Middle School

NVUSD headquarters in Napa

The headquarters of the Napa Valley Unified School District.

Organizers of the charter school planned for downtown Napa have declared that hundreds of families eagerly seek a fresh education alternative for students entering their teenage years. But on Thursday night, the actual votes they needed to make their school a reality were nowhere to be had.

Dismissing it as poorly planned and financially rickety, the Napa Valley Unified School District board unanimously vetoed a petition to open the Mayacamas Charter Middle School starting in August 2022. The rejection halted a months-long drive to create a new self-governing academy for a district poised to close one current charter school and one former charter when the current academic year ends in June.

Myriad objections to Mayacamas budget and education plan, which surfaced in an evaluation by district staff released Nov. 22, were readily supported by all seven NVUSD trustees, who alleged that the would-be school’s chief advocates refused even a person-to-person interview to respond to district leaders’ objections.

Staff directors and trustees agreed with the 42-page report in finding numerous faults with the proposed charter school – from over-optimistic revenue and cost forecasts, to the expectation of rapid student growth amid steady enrollment declines locally, to minimal funding and staffing plans to teach English learners and those needing special education.

Petitioners’ efforts to win support for the charter academy – from hundreds of supporters’ signatures to lawn signs, letters to the editor, a Facebook board and a promotional video screened at the Thursday board meeting – failed to chip away at board members’ deep skepticism that Mayacamas would offer unique academic choices, adequately serve disabled or English-learning children, or even stay solvent.

Only the desire to create a small and quasi-private school with taxpayer money would distinguish Mayacamas from NVUSD’s other campuses, declared board trustee Eve Ryser, who agreed with staff warnings that the project would drain money and resources from existing middle schools in Napa and American Canyon.

“There’s only one factor that differentiates this school, and that’s its size, the physical size of the campus and the size of the student body,” said Ryser, a former Vallejo public school teacher. “But size is not pedagogy; size is not innovative programming; it’s just not. It’s not a unique offering; it’s cultivating an elite private school experience on the taxpayer dime, to the detriment of the other students of NVUSD.”

It was a clear and blunt rejection by the school board of the Mayacamas petition, which the non-profit Napa Foundation for Options in Education filed with NVUSD on Sept. 15. The proposal took shape in the months after the district board voted in April to retire two middle schools after 2022, Harvest and River – the latter a former charter academy absorbed by the district in 2019. (A new district creation, Unidos Middle School, will open for 2022-23 at River’s north Napa property and effectively inherit Harvest’s English-Spanish dual-immersion program.)

The Napa foundation sought a five-year agreement to run a self-governing school for the sixth to eighth grades inside the onetime home St. John the Baptist Catholic School, which operated at 983 Napa St. until shuttering in 2020.

Mayacamas organizers planned to launch the academy in August 2022 with 180 students, then gradually increase the student count each year to 336 by 2025-26, its fourth year of operation.

Lauren Daley and Jolene Yee, the chief petitioners for the Mayacamas school, made their final case for their plan during the internet-based meeting – but only in a prerecorded 18-minute video shown to the school board, rather than in real time.

“There has been quite a bit of misinformation, misstatements and misrepresentations about the petition, the petitioners and the school, the foundation, and the law during this process,” said Yee in some of her few comments beyond the video presentation. Neither she nor Daley took questions or made further comments afterward.

The presentation promised that adding alternative programs like Mayacamas would help stem losses of children to private schools, and that the new academy would provide an on-ramp to the project-based learning offered at New Technology High – as well as a small-school experience with close teacher oversight. Daley and Yee, in the video, also defended the charter school board’s expertise in law, financial planning and other skills, and asserted the strength of Mayacamas’ budget, predicting 5% reserves in its first two years and increases afterward.

But no board members were persuaded to back the charter plan.

Shaky budgeting would likely cause Mayacamas to run out of cash by November 2023, less than halfway through its second year, predicted trustee David Gracia. With “a fairy-tale budget with no basis in reality, you have no business being in the school business,” he said.

Trustee Cindy Watter described the irony of seeing signs advocating for Mayacamas’ creation on the sides of the former St. John school, which endured enrollment declines before shuttering after 108 years.

“St. John’s, with over a century of experience in running a school, couldn’t keep the doors open – and this in a time when people are supposedly flocking to private schools,” she said.

Further criticism came from the school board’s student trustee Emily Bit, who attends American Canyon High School and is the daughter of a third-grade public school teacher.

Bit described her mother and other teachers having to pay for school supplies out of pocket, another teacher stocking granola bars for hungry students, and the constant fundraising needed to support sports and performing arts programs – and then questioned the wisdom of adding another campus to compete for scarce funds.

“If our answer to every problem is to open another school, we will end up with multiple mediocre and even unsatisfactory schools – and zero progress,” she said before lending her non-binding vote against Mayacamas to those of the seven trustees.

Beyond the fiscal and staffing flaws of the planned charter school, the actions of Mayacamas’ backers have shown a troubling amateurishness, according to NVUSD Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti. She pointed to the staff report’s finding that 30% of the charter petition was copied from another charter application in the Compton school district more than 400 miles away in greater Los Angeles, as well as an allegation that petitioners backed out of a November meeting to discuss the application after seeking to answer only written questions, not face-to-face ones.

“From our standpoint, we are observing a lack of professionalism and organization on their part,” said Mucetti. “And they are not even operating a school yet.”

With the rejection of the Mayacamas proposal and the absorption or closure of other charters, the Napa districts sole autonomous academy will remain Stone Bridge, a K-8 school offering a low-technology Waldorf curriculum. Stone Bridge, which departed a Carneros site damaged by the 2014 Napa earthquake, is in its first year in Coombsville on the old campus of Mt. George, one of two elementary schools NVUSD closed last year due to shrinking enrollment.

Elsewhere, a NVUSD pilot project aims to gradually expand two elementary schools to allow pupils to go to the same campus for nine years, a model promoted by some parents seeking a more nurturing atmosphere for their children as they grow into preteens.

Shearer Elementary in Old Town this year added a sixth grade, and success in the expansion may lead to instruction through grade 7 both there and at Browns Valley Elementary in the city’s west side in 2022-23. Each campus would need to enroll about 34 students per new grade for the expansion to continue, NVUSD officials said in August.

Organizers hope to open a new charter middle school in Napa: Mayacamas Charter Middle School. It could occupy the former St. John the Baptist Catholic School property in downtown Napa.

Howard Yune's favorite Napa Valley Register stories from 2021

I'm sharing five of my stories that I hope captured some of the flavor of life in the Napa Valley in this past year — from our slow emergence from the pandemic, to the return of live entertainment, to a young first-time marathoner's tribute to her late mother.

You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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City Editor and Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune became the Register's city editor in September 2022. He has been a staff reporter and photographer since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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