District torn over Waldorf petition

05/17/2012

It was standing room only last Thursday evening in Lagunitas School’s multipurpose room and emotions were running high as parents, teachers and administrators commented on the controversial petition to turn the popular Waldorf-Inspired Program (LWIP) into a charter school. While supporters said the move to “go charter” is a last-ditch effort to ensure the survival of their beloved program, others argued it would bleed already scarce resources and could even sink the district.

At the podium, Matt Andrews, a lead author of the charter, fought back tears as he defended the move to the Lagunitas School District Board of Trustees, which will vote on the petition on June 12.

“We are all truly blessed to be here in this beautiful place, in this dynamic school district,” Andrews said. “Our intention is truly born not only out of necessity but out of love as well—the love of our children, the love of this valley, and the hope that we will work together as a community.”

While most of the petition’s critics are focused on the charter’s financial impact, state law prohibits districts from denying charter petitions based solely on economic grounds. The 1992 law says a petition must itself be financially viable, and may be denied only if it is judged to present an unsound educational program, is demonstratively unlikely to implement the proposed program or does not contain the requisite number of signatures, affirm a commitment to offer free and nondiscriminatory education, or contain essential elements, such as governmental structures and disciplinary procedures.  

The district’s attorney Edward Sklar said on Thursday that the petition met all but one of these criteria, on which the board was now seeking clarification. “We have found that a great amount of effort went into writing the petition,” he said. “Our remaining questions pertain to the discipline process, and to plans regarding the retirement system for charter school employees.”

Housed in the school’s upper campus, LWIP is based on the interdisciplinary educational method pioneered by Austrian philosopher Dr. Rudolph Steiner in the first half of the twentieth century. It seeks to combine academic, emotional, physical, artistic, social and ethical facets of learning to provide a liberal arts education at the elementary level.

It is also one of the few free Waldorf-inspired programs in the world. The private Marin Waldorf School in San Rafael charges $17,450 per year for first through eighth graders.

If the charter is approved, the 50-some LWIP students will no longer be considered part of the district. Because the revenue for a basic aid district like this one depends on property taxes and not the size of the student body, taking the LWIP students out of the mix will make Lagunitas a wealthier district on paper because the per-pupil revenue will go up. With next year’s projected budget at $2,956,000, including the LWIP students, per-pupil revenue would be $10,827.

But that amount will climb to $11,678 if the charter is approved, and the district will save approximately $196,000 in salaries for LWIP teachers and staff, supplies, facility maintenance and utilities.

However, since about $305,000 of local funds would be diverted to the charter school, Lagunitas would still be left with a deficit of about $109,000—a gap that would continue in subsequent years.

Many are concerned that such a shortfall could result in drastic service cuts and even layoffs, to which the teachers at the new charter school would be immune.

“This is union busting,” third and fourth grade teacher and longtime Valley resident Anita Collison said. “I am against the privatization of our public schools. I oppose this charter because it will weaken our certifications and classified staff. I see this as another attack on the rights of public school employees.”

Collison echoed a common misunderstanding that charter schools are private; in fact they are free and public. If demand for enrollment were to outstrip the proposed school’s capacity, admission would be determined by a random lottery, with priority given to in-district students and their siblings. An additional, out-of-district random lottery would then be held to fill any remaining spots.

While some of the projected loss could be recovered through administrative contracts coming from the charter school, the details of such an agreement have yet to be hammered out.

“Yes, there will be shortages to contend with,” Andrews said later. “But we can’t continue to operate at such a disadvantage, with only 2.6 teachers serving six grades. Our students shouldn’t have to be at such a disadvantage [. . .] They are going to have to get creative.”

But Lagunitas Business Manager Amy Prescott said there was only so much the district could do to contend with what she called a “very significant” deficit like the one projected, without resorting to a reduction in personnel.

“The only real way to make significant reductions in spending is in personnel. With a continued yearly loss of more than $100,000, we would most likely not be able to avoid employee layoffs,” she said.

For many, that fear seems to have clouded any benefits of the dramatic measure to keep the LWIP afloat, especially in a district that already has progressive curricula.

But LWIP kindergarten and first grade teacher Dorothy Islan said Waldorf education uniquely looks ahead to what human beings need to be capable of when they come of age and go out into the world.

“Like the Montessori program, Waldorf is about an education of the heart,” she said. “The way culture and the global world is now, we are really between a rock and a hard place. In South Africa, when all schools were divided racially under apartheid, the only schools that were combined with a multiracial student body were the Waldorf schools. And in Israel, the Harduf Kibbutz Waldorf School includes both Jewish and Arab faculty and students and has extensive contact with the surrounding Arab communities.”

Yet locally, the proposed Waldorf charter appears to be tearing the district apart—a rift made worse by the spread of fliers containing misinformation about the nature of charter schools, state funding practices and inaccurate figures.

Teacher and parent Jasper Thelin, who graduated from the Open Classroom—one of the district’s specialized public programs—in 1981 and has taught at Sir Francis Drake High School for 12 years, has two children in the LWIP. “The numbers are not what is important,” he said. “What is important is that we come together as a community to support each other.” He likened the response to the charter petition to villagers wielding pitchforks and torches.

“We’re not the monster they’ve been hunting down in the village,” Thelin said. “Instead, it’s [more like] a little garden gnome that just wants to be part of the community.”

Longtime valley resident and Open Classroom founder Niz Brown was also concerned about what she saw as the “privatization” of public schools, but feels the responsibility to remedy the financial shortages lies at the state level.

“If we took all this energy that’s being poured into this debate, and we all got on a bus to Sacramento, we might make a real difference,” she said.

Lagunitas Principal Laura Shain, who is new to the school, said she is focused on keeping the relationship between all the programs on campus strong and productive, no matter what the outcome of the charter petition.

“We need to make sure that everyone feels welcome on our campus,” she said, “whether we have a charter school or not.”