April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current
January 29, 2024
The Nevada State Public Charter School Authority on Friday unanimously approved the massive expansion of a Northern Nevada charter school despite opposition from the Washoe County School District over concerns that its opening may force the closure of existing schools in the area.
Mater Academy of Northern Nevada, which currently operates a Reno charter school with 490 students in grades K-8, received approval to open a second facility in Golden Valley. The new facility will enroll 1,400 K-12 students within five years, and the existing school will shift into only offering K-5, though it will expand the number of students in those grade levels and stay around 490 students total.
In a letter to the Charter School Authority, WCSD Interim Superintendent Kristen McNeill stated the district only received formal notice of the proposal on Dec. 15 and did not receive the application materials for review until Dec. 20 — days before winter break.
“The entire timeline of this application is concerning,” said Washoe County School Board President Beth Smith during public comment, adding she was speaking for herself and not the board.
Any project with the potential to be detrimental to tax-funded schools should not be quickly approved, she continued. Projects of a similar scale at WCSD would include months public review and public discourse.
“School closures at the elementary school level would be likely upon the opening of MANN Golden Valley,” stated WCSD in its input letter to the SPCSA.
None of the 13 schools in the area of the proposed charter school are overcrowded, stated WCSD. Many are operating below 80% capacity. One, Cold Springs Middle School, is at only 44%.
The district currently projects “essentially zero net growth” for those nearby schools.
“There is no overcrowded school within this region of the WCSD and absent enrollment growth, this is a zero-sum scenario. An addition of a new K12 school will only accelerate further atrophy of WCSD enrollments. These losses impact the funding of teachers, custodians, nutrition service workers, bus drivers, support staff and school administrators.”
With Friday’s vote, MANN Golden Valley is approved to open with 767 students in grades K-8. The school, which will build a campus, will be located immediately adjacent to WCSD’s Alice Smith Elementary School, which has also raised concerns about traffic impacts in the area during school dropoff and pickup times.
The proposed charter school is also less than 5 miles from a career and technical career education school WCSD is currently constructing. Debbie Smith CTE High School is scheduled to open for the 2025-26 school year with a projected enrollment of more than 900 students.
Chris Daly of the Nevada State Education Association said the Charter School Authority is not meeting the spirit of a 2017 bill meant to better manage growth of charter schools within the state.
The board should “watch out for the broader public good,” he added, by considering the impacts to all students.
The Charter School Authority staff and board members were not convinced by the opposition.
“While WCSD did have some concern regarding this expansion, SPCSA staff does not see a significant enough concern to change its recommendation for approval,” said authority staffer Danny Peltier, reading from the official staff recommendation to the board.
“One thing that really struck me was their fear of competition,” said Charter School Board member Lee Farris of the opposition to the school. “All of our charter schools go through (competition) because they compete for kids. They have to actively get their kids. They have to recruit those kids. And they have to recruit those families year after year. Keep them. And it makes those schools better.”
He continued, “You would think that competition would do nothing but raise the bar for everybody.”
Board member Victor Salcido said MANN is doing what was asked of them — enrolling a student body representative of the larger community and meeting its academic goals. MANN, he added, is an Academica Nevada school, adding that Academica has a record of successful schools.
Academica is a Florida-based charter school management company giant. More than half of all charter school students in the state are enrolled at a charter contracted with Academica.
MANN noted that nearly 70% of students in the nearby zip codes they are targeting for enrollment currently attend 1- or 2-star schools. MANN’s existing elementary and middle schools are both 3-star schools.
MANN’s elementary school is the second highest rated Title-1 elementary school in Washoe County in terms of performance, said an SPCSA staff member, and its middle school is the best performing Title-1 middle school.
Daly noted that only 35% of MANN elementary and 31% of MANN middle school students are proficient in English Language Arts.
WCSD also argued to the SPCSA that it is “wholly inappropriate” to consider MANN’s plan an expansion rather than a new school because it involves offering high school grades and a second facility, as opposed to a simple relocation or adding grades within an elementary, middle or high school.
That legal opinion does not appear to be shared by the Nevada Attorney General’s Office, which said in a memo to the SPCSA that the state’s charter school laws expressly allow for the expansion of additional grades and new facilities.
MANN on Friday also received approval to add distance education courses for its students. According to its application to the Nevada Department of Education, which must approve distance learning courses, MANN will be offering the courses “with the support of” Academica Virtual Education.
In its application, MANN noted that other Academica schools have sought to add distance education.
Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nevada Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Hugh Jackson for questions: email@example.com. Follow Nevada Current on Facebook and Twitter.