Monday, August 08, 2005

St. Paul Charter School Controversy

The St. Paul school district is cutting-off bus service to a charter high school that is located within its boundaries. (use bugmenot id: jb[at] password: 123456) The district says that service is being cut due to out-of-control student behavior: (emphasis added)

Technically, Urban Academy was dropped because it missed the deadline to request busing, said district Transportation Director Harold Turnquist. But Turnquist said he would have tried to stop service to the school even if the school had filed on time based on a discipline problem he said was among the worst the district has ever seen.

More than 430 incidents of unacceptable student behavior — including unruliness and fights — were reported last year on the six buses that served the downtown elementary school. At least 17 required response by off-duty police officers working for the transportation department. "The buses were totally out of control," he said.

The downtown school, at Robert and East Seventh streets, serves more than 190 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

School officials say they did request bus service on time and that they've taken action to address the discipline problems, and they say the district is required by state law to bus Urban Academy's kids.

The law says districts must provide transportation for charter schools within their borders that request it. (Charter schools are public but operate independently of — and often compete with — the districts in which they are located.) The dispute raises the question: What happens when a school and district can't agree on what the law means?

Both sides have appealed to the state Education Department for help, but the state plays only an informal role in resolving conflicts like this, said Morgan Brown, director of the division of school choice and innovation.

I find it strange that the school is being held responsible for student behavior even when pupils are not under the supervision of school personnel.

It would be interesting to compare the discipline histories of different runs made by the same bus driver who transports pupils attending Urban Academy. I'm also curious to know whether or not there has been a history of conflict between supporters of charter schools and the governing board and/or superintendent of the St. Paul school district.

Those who oppose charter schools will often find any excuse to choke-off resources to the charter. This may or may not be true in this case.

The piece does recount a history of problems between the districts transportation department and the academy:

They clashed over pickup and drop-off locations as soon as the school opened in 2003, and Urban Academy had to hire a private bus service for that year.

The district provided service starting in fall 2004, and Turnquist said officials assumed safety policy was being followed until they ran a report on the school in the spring and discovered the large number of offenses. Turnquist sent the school a letter in May identifying more than 20 students who needed to be kicked off buses immediately.

Those students were removed, said Urban Academy Site Director Ralph Elliott, though some were allowed back on the buses by drivers. Turnquist said bus company employees told him none of the students was removed.
In case mediation efforts fail, the Academy's administrators are trying to make alternative transportation arrangements, but they aren't certain of how they'll compensate for the unexpected expense of between $40,000 and $60,000.
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