Cherry Creek School District board denies Novastar Academy charter application, discuss future finances

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GREENWOOD VILLAGE | The Cherry Creek school board voted Monday night to reject a charter school application from Novastar Academy, citing concerns over its lack of plans to serve students with special needs and students of color.

According to its charter application, Novastar Academy would be a school for 6-12th grade students in Centennial centered around project-based learning. Along with the STEM fields the school would also focus on bilingual education, and the application said that so far all of the families interested in enrolling were non-native English speakers.

A review by the district’s charter school review committee found “many concerns” with the application, including unclear curriculum and governance plans and insufficient interest in the school to make it financially sustainable. The application said it planned to open in 2021 with 200 students, and by July had only received letters of intent to enroll from 138 families.

Board member Kelly Bates said that during a presentation to the district, the applicants “did not seem to be in alignment with our values of promoting an equitable education for students of color and closing the achievement gap.”

Board president Karen Fisher said that while the school could be a good fit for some students, she had concerns about Novastar’s proposed location, cost, plans for serving students with special needs and plans to recruit a diverse student body.

“Any support for this charter school from me would be subject to satisfactory plans covering those major deficiencies,” she said.

The motion to deny the charter passed 4-1, with Fisher as the one no vote.

Another charter program that had submitted an application to the district, Friendship Aspire Academy, withdrew its application in October. The application was for an elementary school for boys of color.

The board meeting came several days after the district announced it would be transitioning back to online learning after a spike in COVID-19 cases. A number of parents and one student voiced frustration with the decision during public comment.

Kelly Burdoch said that her seventh grader used to be a straight A student, but with online school no longer enjoys learning and has a D in one of his classes.

“I believe the school district should stand up and fight for our children,” said. “I don’t want to hear the run-around of ‘well it’s not us, it’s them, our hands are tied.’”

Amber Cornett said that her twin sons, who have autism, are seriously struggling during online learning.

“Day by day we’re losing progress they worked so hard for,” she said.

In his opening remarks, Superintendent Scott Siegfried said that he was disappointed that the district had to move to online learning, and is already working on ways to bring back elementary students and students with special needs.

“I want our kids in school in person, but it depends on much more that happens in the community to make that occur,” he said.

It was also the first board meeting after the election, where voters overwhelmingly approved 4A and 4B, a bond measure and mill levy that will help the district make up the deficit it is facing due to state budget cuts caused by COVID-19.

“We as a district can now start talking about the positive work we will do for students moving forward in the next year as opposed to planning for drastic cuts to staff,” Siegfried said.

Scott Smith, the district’s chief financial officer, gave a presentation on how the election will impact the district’s budget.

Measure 4A, the mill levy, will provide $35 million to the district for operating expenses. Bond measure 4B will provide $150 million for improvement projects in the district. The bonds will be sold in early 2021.

The projects include a $3 million renovation of Village East Elementary School, the creation of a $7 million mental health day treatment center, $5 million towards the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, $26 million towards safety and security upgrades and $88 million towards maintenance on aging buildings and the creation of a new elementary school.

The repeal of the Gallagher Amendment will not give the district any more money, but it will keep it from losing money, Smith said. The district was projected to lose $12.5 million next year if the amendment was not repealed, he said.

Proposition EE, a tax on cigarettes and vaping products, will not give the district any money directly, but it may receive some funds from the state department of education.

The district is projected to lose some money because of the passage of Proposition 116, which reduces the state’s income tax rate from 4.63% to 4.55%. This means the state will lose $150 million in funding for education, an estimated $2.7 million of which would have gone to Cherry Creek.

The next board meeting will be held on Monday, Dec. 14.