A petition to establish a charter school named for one of the most powerful Republican political operatives in Kern County has been given the green light by the Tehachapi Unified School District.
The district board voted 6-0 Tuesday night to approve, with some conditions, the Abernathy Collegiate Charter School, named for prominent Bakersfield Republican consultant Mark Abernathy.
One board member was absent Tuesday night.
"We are so excited -- and relieved," said Tehachapi-area resident Teresa Foley, one of the petitioners who conceived of the idea and supported the establishment of the charter school.
"I didn't want to go through this again with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools," she said.
When petitions for charter schools are denied at the school district level -- and they often are -- petitioners can try again at the superintendent of schools office. And if the superintendent's office gives a thumbs-down, petitioners can seek approval a third time from the State Board of Education.
Tehachapi Unified Superintendent Lisa Gilbert said Wednesday the petition was approved, but with modifications -- and full approval remains subject to the execution of a memorandum of understanding intended to iron out any remaining issues.
Those issues include "a little bit of everything," Gilbert said. For example, by law, the district is required to provide a rent-free facility for an active charter school, but the school must make provisions for its own custodial services.
"They didn't budget for custodial services," the superintendent said.
There are also some details to be ironed out regarding special education, Gilbert said. Charter schools cannot by law turn away special ed students -- and Foley stressed the charter is ethically bound to accept those students anyway. But organizers of the Abernathy school have opted to pay to use the district's services rather than establish a separate special education program.
Public schools are not fully reimbursed by the state for the full cost of their special ed programs, so it's likely to the charter's financial advantage to used the district's already existing educational infrastructure.
Charter schools are public schools, but they have more flexibility to develop curriculum. The charter's curriculum will not be subject to the district's approval, Gilbert said, although the charter must meet basic testing accountability standards.
One sticky issue in Tehachapi has been the federal requirements for an anti-bullying curriculum in the wake of the 2010 suicide of gay high school student Seth Walsh.
Will the charter school be subject to those requirements?
"There's an argument against that," Gilbert said. "Because the charter school is independent, not a district program"
But if charter students participate in the district's athletics programs, they may be subject to the federal requirements, Gilbert said. The same may be true if charter students mix or come in regular contact with district students on district property.
All of these issues have yet to be worked out.
Meanwhile, charter organizers plan to apply for a state grant to provide start-up money, Foley said. And they will reach out locally for corporate assistance.
Is it possible the establishment of a new charter -- there are already two others in the area -- could force further cuts to programs in the district already impacted by state budget cuts?
"Yes, it has the potential to impact our programs," Gilbert said. "Because the reality is, the (per-pupil per-day) funding goes with the students."
If the charter's students are made up primarily of those who currently attend area private or home schools -- the charter's target population, Foley said -- the impact should be minimal.
If they are pulled from Tehachapi's public schools, that's another matter
"If we have less students," Gilbert said, "we have less funds."