Merit Academy Receives Green Light as Designated Charter School In RE-2 District

The Woodland Park RE-2 School District Board of Education held its last meeting at the Woodland Park Middle School Commons on April 13. Photo By Trevor Phipps

Board Decision Prompted by Concerns Over Shutting Down Facilities

Trevor Phipps

During last week’s five-hour long Woodland Park RE-2 School District Board of Education meeting, sparks flew once again regarding the subject of approving the new Merit Academy as a designated charter school in the district.

The approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding the charter school was on the agenda for the third time.

This time though, the board held a lengthy discussion about the subject towards the end of the meeting. During the discussion, board directors David Illingworth II and Chris Austin had a tense verbal exchange.

In the end, the board members voted to approve the MOU, which would speed up the chartering process despite several remarks voiced against the decision from the audience. Austin was the only director who voted “no” to approve the MOU after giving several points of reasoning behind his decision.

The purpose of the MOU was to prevent Merit Academy from having to repeat the application process. Now that the MOU has been approved, the contract with Merit Academy was discussed during an executive session after last week’s meeting.

According to Board President David Rusterholtz, the concerns of the previous RE-2 leaders and the reasons they denied Merit’s application would still be addressed when the contract is completed. Meetings in the future will address the changes made to meet the problems the previous board had with the original application.

School Board President David Rusterholtz (left) and Superintendent Dr. Mathew Neal (right) at the April 13 meeting. Photo By Trevor Phipps

The discussion started with Illingworth explaining why he wants to move the charter application process through quickly. Since they had already gone through the process, and were previously denied, the board sought to make the process move smoother this time. This emerged as a big campaign promise of the newly-elected school board members.

“I believe school choice is something people in this community not only want but need,” Illingworth said. “I believe that it is a no-brainer decision. It is a win-win for this district to bring in Merit Academy as a charter school. Everyone knows that our enrollment numbers have been falling off the cliff for several years. Merit Academy by being a contract school has inadvertently contributed to that. Because children left our district to go to Merit Academy. Children leaving our district to go to Merit fall off of our rolls and they take the state funding with them.”

Board Directors Suzanne Patterson (left) and David Illingworth II (right) at the April 13 meeting. Photo By Trevor Phipps

The night before the board meeting, a discussion about facilities was held. According to Rusterholtz, it was determined that the school will eventually have to close one or more schools in the future.

Illingworth continued by saying chartering Merit would be a good way to bring students back to the district and potentially keep them from having to close schools. He said that he disagreed with the previous board’s decision to deny the Merit Academy application and the process they went through.

“It is a different decision that we have made not because it is a different board membership,” Illingworth said. “It’s a different circumstance entirely because the old board was having to speculate and guess to whether what was on paper was actually going to turn into reality. We fortunately do not have to make an educated guess about whether Merit could successfully recruit educators and students. We know they have been able to do that and they have been thriving. It is just an entirely different matter today than it was a year ago.”

Board Directors Gary Brovetto (left) and Chris Austin (right) at the April 13 meeting. Photo By Trevor Phipps

Board Majority Dissenter Cites Unprecedented Arrangement

All of the board members except Austin said that they agreed with what Illingworth had said. After the other board members spoke, Austin brought up some concerns he had with approving the MOU.

One major problem Austin had was setting a precedence of transferring a contract school to a charter school through an MOU and skipping the application process. “When we had a consultant come in, he made it very clear to us that this is unprecedented,” Austin said. “One of the things that he wanted to do was to ensure that in our process approaching the transfer from a contract school to a charter school that we did things in ‘best practice.’ Because what we were going to do essentially was to establish precedence. So, to me, this has less to do with the viability of Merit as a school.”

During the meeting it was also announced that the board’s attorney, Brad Miller, would be stepping away from the district during the contract process. Miller said that he did not have the capacity to continue the working on the Merit Academy contract.

During public comment, one local business owner expressed outrage that the board spends more time talking about the Merit Academy than addressing issues within the district. “This is the Woodland Park School District,” local resident and business owner Erin O’Connell said. “We come in here and board members want to exclusively talk about Merit Academy. There is a whole section of reserved chairs for Merit Academy. Never have I seen any chairs reserved for the WPEA (Woodland Park Education Association) never have I seen chairs reserved for these teachers, these staff members or these students. This is the Woodland Park School District. If you wanted to be on the Merit board, you should have run for the Merit board.”