Heartwood at center of likely investigation

03/08/2018

Since Heartwood Educational Collaborative lost its public funding in January, troubles for the Fairfax charter school have only worsened. One teacher and a quarter of its students left in recent weeks and rumors of the illegal use of reserve funds have spurred an investigation by the office of education in Sonoma County, where the school’s charter had been authorized.

Heartwood, a Waldorf-inspired program located in the White Hill Open Space Preserve, was spearheaded by Lagunitas School parents after that district shuttered a similar program in 2014. 

Heartwood operated under an umbrella school program called CalSTEAM, but that charter ran into difficulties with its authorizer, Liberty School District in Sonoma County, and announced it was self-revoking its charter last December. 

That left Heartwood cut off from public funding in the middle of the school year.

Lagunitas resident Greg Browman, a founding member of Heartwood—formerly known as WISE Academy—is a member of the governing council. He said school representatives have been meeting with superintendents, administrators and other stakeholders throughout the county to determine the best course of action. 

Between going private or securing another charter, Mr. Browman said the latter is the preferred option, though doing so will not be possible before the end this school year.  

In the meantime, Heartwood has advised its parents to file for homeschool affidavits. That way, they can continue to bring their children together at the same site and work collaboratively. That’s a common arrangement, said Terena Mares, the deputy superintendent for Marin’s office of education. 

Ms. Mares met with representatives from Heartwood in January, following the announcement that CalSTEAM was self-revoking its charter, and told them that the school could not use reserve funds. 

“I explained at that time that without a charter, they had lost their access to public funds, including to any reserves they might have had,” Ms. Mares said. “If they could find a benefactor or someone to keep them afloat, they could have gone private. The other option was to have individual parents file for homeschool affidavits—otherwise, their kids would be truants.” 

Ms. Mares was disappointed to hear rumors that CalSTEAM may have allowed Heartwood to use its reserve funds, which is what Mr. Browman told the Light it would do back in January. Doing so would be a violation of its charter agreement in regard to both funds allocated by the state as well as any private donations. 

“A charter school is a public school supported by public funds through the state. Once a charter school closes, it loses its access to all funds and to those previously allocated, whether by the state or through private donations. It is all cut off,” Ms. Mares said.

Since CalSTEAM was authorized in Sonoma, county officials determined that it made the most sense for the matter to be addressed in that county. 

Steve Herrington, the superintendent of schools in Sonoma, confirmed that the office of education is currently investigating options to audit the Sonoma chapter of CalSTEAM over the possible violation by Heartwood. (CalSTEAM, in this case, is the responsible party.) 

Mr. Browman declined to comment this week on whether the school has been using reserve funds. 

As Heartwood’s staff and board members grapple with the school’s future, around 40 of the 160 students enrolled in January have since left. West Marin districts reported just a handful of transfers in the last few months.

Heartwood’s students hail from districts across Marin and Sonoma Counties, yet one group moved on together. Accompanied by many of her students, the teacher of the combined third and fourth-grade class at Heartwood has started employment at the neighboring Ross Valley Charter School, a first-year program based at White Hill Middle School.  

Sharon Sagar, the board chair of Ross Valley Charter School, said they created a new third and fourth-grade class to accommodate the teacher and a host of her students from Heartwood. (The new class also enabled Ross Valley to enroll other students from its waiting list, Ms. Sagar said.) She was unable to provide the exact numbers of Heartwood students that transferred in recent months, but said the program now has around 150 students in total. 

“We think that parents from Heartwood see some similarities in the alternative education that we provide, which includes grade combinations, project-based and self-directed learning as well as a strong emphasis on student leadership activities,” Ms. Sagar said. “I think that both Heartwood and Ross Valley Charter should be able thrive in the same community. We can surely co-exist.”

Yet Ross Valley, which obtained a charter through the state after unsuccessful attempts at an agreement both with its home district and the county, has been met with mixed feelings locally. 

Opponents took to the streets in protest in January, expressing anger that the charter drains resources for the Ross Valley district schools, including public funds and the use of classroom space. (The charter school uses eight at the middle school.) 

Marin families’ vocal opposition to charter schools has given Heartwood representatives cold feet about the possibility of applying for a charter through Ross Valley. 

“It’s likely that it will be best for the school to gain a charter through the county, rather than through Ross Valley,” Mr. Browman said. “The word ‘charter’ is so charged up right now. It doesn’t seem like the community has the bandwidth to even have another charter.” 

He said the school will likely try to secure an independent charter agreement, such as it held before, rather than a site-based one. The latter would require that the school have at least as many students from its home school district, Ross Valley, as it does from other districts. 

Amid all the uncertainty, Mr. Browman said the parents and teachers that remain at Heartwood are “very committed” to the school. “For the students, the effects of recent shifts are less drastic for the lower grades than for the third and fourth-year class,” he said.