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Napa school district recommends rejecting Mayacamas charter school plan; board to vote Dec. 9

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Napa’s public school system should not accept a petition to open the Mayacamas Charter Middle School next year, school district staff said in a report issued Monday night.

In a 42-page statement posted to the Napa Valley Unified School District’s website, district staff said the proposed charter school for grades 6-8 is built on an unrealistically rosy financial outlook, lacks a clear path to hiring qualified staff, and risks draining funds away from existing schools with academic offerings little different from those already available at other campuses.

In addition, the report criticized the charter school plan for inadequate staffing for those working with English learners and students with disabilities and declared that admissions criteria favoring parents who put in more volunteer hours at the school would violate state law.

The recommendation to reject the Mayacamas school proposal was published ahead of the NVUSD board’s scheduled Dec. 9 vote on the charter petition, which was filed Sept. 15 by the nonprofit Napa Foundation for Options in Education.

The organization is seeking a five-year agreement starting in 2022-23 to run a self-governing school in the downtown building of the former St. John the Baptist Catholic School, a K-8 academy that operated at 983 Napa St. until closing in June 2020. Plans filed in the petition call for the charter school to open with 180 students next August and gradually increase enrollment to 336 by its fourth year, 2025-26.

Supporters of the Mayacamas school went public with their plan after NVUSD in April voted to close two middle schools after 2022, including River, a former charter school in north Napa based on smaller classrooms and close teacher-student interaction. (The River campus will be taken over by Unidos Middle School, a dual-language English-Spanish academy that will effectively replace Harvest, which the school board also voted to shut down.)

Allies including the Mayacamas plan’s co-organizer Lauren Daley have predicted a new charter would leave a small-classroom option open to students needing a more nurturing environment to thrive, and is NVUSD’s best hope of stemming losses to private schools.

“While the current middle school options are likely great for a large number of students, there are clearly families who need the Mayacamas option,” Daley told the NVUSD board at an online public forum Nov. 4 on the charter plan. “Many have said this is their last hope for remaining in public school in Napa.”

However, NVUSD’s reply to the petition alleged various weaknesses in the plan.

Mayacamas’ financial plan would fail to achieve the 5% financial reserve required by the state in any of its first five years, officials wrote. Moreover, the school’s aim of opening with 180 students is unrealistic with the district’s overall enrollment declining since the mid-2010s and expected to continue falling through most of the decade, the report continued.

Of the 121 signatures included with the Mayacamas charter petition of people “meaningfully interested” in enrolling their children there, district staff have contacted 96, of whom only 74 remain committed to enrolling the children at the future school, the report stated.

District staff also alleged the charter petition lacks detail on measuring students’ outcomes, or how the school will achieve a balance of ethnic groups, English learners and special-education pupils similar to that of its surrounding area.

The charter school’s would-be home at the old St. John’s school also contains various barriers to disabled students, NVUSD staff found, including a main entrance and second floor reachable only by stairs.

Additionally, the NVUSD report also criticized the charter school petition for recycling large parts of another charter application filed last year in the Compton school district outside Los Angeles. A software comparison of the two petitions found that more than 30% of the text was identical, and another 10% was either lightly edited or paraphrased, Napa staff wrote.

A letter sent Tuesday morning by Mayacamas’ co-organizers Daley and Jolene Yee rejected NVUSD’s arguments against the charter school proposal, while alleging interference such as denying the charter's backers a 12-minute presentation slot at a forum. The statement also denied that greater consideration for admitting students would be based on their parents offering more volunteer time.

“NVUSD staff have invested a great deal of time, resources, and effort to try and squash our petition because our new public middle school doesn’t fit into their plans,” wrote Daley and Yee. “… The report completely disregards the hundreds of lawn signs all over town, the active and engaged Facebook groups, the letters to the editor, the support letters to the trustees and to the district, and all the families who have signed up on our website demonstrating an interest in attending MCMS.”

Yee and Daley also pushed back against the district report’s questioning of Mayacamas directors’ experience in instruction, curriculum, or educational finance.

“The charter law expects us — as parents — to establish charter schools independent of the school district, and the law doesn’t expect us to have any special experience or expertise to do so,” they wrote. “That being said, we have strong contacts and a plan in place to hire the key professionals necessary to run a school once approved.”

NVUSD’s only currently operating charter school is Stone Bridge, which teaches a low-technology Waldorf curriculum to children from kindergarten to eighth grade. Stone Bridge this year moved to the shuttered Mt. George Elementary site in the Coombsville area, leaving behind a Carneros campus damaged by the 2014 Napa earthquake.

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.

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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