Charter Renewal Do’s and Don’ts from an Authorizer’s Lens

By Stephanie Cho, Business Development Manager, EdTec 

Originally published October 2011

Renewal can be a daunting process for even the most prepared and organized charter schools. The process is time-consuming and often produces anxiety within the community. The uncertainty and politics that surround charter approvals and renewals. In an effort to shed light on what authorizers look for from schools going through renewal, EdTec conducted interviews with authorizers from around the state, to provide their charter renewal advice and get their take on how schools can equip themselves to emerge successful.

Keith Butler

Business Advisory Services Consultant

San Diego County Office of Education

Q: What have you seen schools do that make for a successful renewal petition?

A: Successful schools start early and carefully watch for deadlines (often in June). Schools that don’t plan ahead and are still making significant corrections in March and April are bound to fall short. It’s important for schools to come to an agreement with their authorizers on oversight. Figure out what is expected ahead of time in this area and address those expectations.

Q: What are some common issues you see schools fail to address in their petitions that hurt their renewal efforts?

A: Common pitfalls tend to happen in the budget assumptions. I want to be sure that the numbers presented in the petition budget are based on reality. The school needs to be able to back up their enrollment numbers and provide evidence to support other assumptions. This can be a growth plan, and other details such as what a school is paying for its liability insurance. Schools can run into problems when the funding rates used are not from SSC (School Services of California), the ADA isn’t sufficiently backed up, or cash flow timing isn’t accurate or consistent with county projections. Expenses should tie to both the school’s historical data and incorporate what’s on the horizon. For example, healthcare costs year over year should be consistent with previous policies (e.g. a cap) and anticipate future needs. Expenses should be clearly laid out and classified by category and object code. Overall, the financials should include actuals as well as a good list of assumptions for the projections.

Q: What would you like to see more of when you review renewal petitions?

A: More documentation and specification that backs up what’s written. For example, the school’s learning outcomes – what methods exactly is the school using to achieve those outcomes? I would like to see how schools are meeting the various measurable pupil outcomes (MPOs). When shortcomings are identified, I’d like to see schools put a system in place that lays out exactly how to drive change and what results are expected to come of it.

Q: Sometimes schools put in very aggressive goals in their original petitions, often at the request of the authorizer, and then fall short of meeting those goals. What can a charter do in that situation?

A: Revise your projections early with various scenarios that are reasonable. For example, show that you’ve thought through the different scenarios that could happen. Have projections based on current data, current projections plus a cost of living adjustment to your salaries, current projections plus cuts, etc. On the instructional side, the goal is to show that you know what you’re doing and are able to offer realistic alternatives if the status quo isn’t working.

Q: What is your main piece of charter renewal advice to schools that are going through the renewal process this year?

A: My main piece of charter renewal advice is to agree with your authorizer on expectations regarding oversight guidelines, keep communications up, and it should go smoothly.

José J. Cole-Gutiérrez

Director, Charter Schools

Innovation and Charter Schools Division, LAUSD

Q: What have you seen schools do that make for a successful renewal petition?

A: More effective schools are the ones planning well ahead the year before renewal. These schools have gone through each and every year, well aware of how they have done performance-wise, engaged their communities, engaged their boards, and have made the time for self-assessment. This is why they earn another five years. These schools can also address what they can improve in the next five years. Smaller things that schools have done include looking at the LAUSD oversight report on a yearly basis, taking corrective action when necessary, and communicating with their assigned renewal team well ahead of time. Schools that do well have addressed problems in advance. During the actual renewal process LAUSD should not have to go back to those issues. On the finance side, finances should be in good order and the cash flow and balance sheet need to look strong.

Q: What would you like to see more of when you review renewal petitions?

A: More of a demonstration of community and staff support. I’d also like to see folks addressing outstanding issues and what they want to accomplish in the next five years. Ultimately, I want to see a strong performing school that meets what leaders said they would do and the standard of the law.

Q: What is your main piece of charter renewal advice to schools that are going through the renewal process this year?

A: Be very clear and proud of your accomplishments as candidly as possible. Celebrate! At the same time, let us know what challenges you face and how you plan to deal with them. Looking back, ask yourself how did we do? What did we do well and how can we do more of that? Looking forward, how will we change? Regarding financial challenges, how can we be more prudent?

Q: Do you have any other comments?

A: LAUSD has 30 schools up for renewal this year. In many cases, this is more than districts have in charters total. We want to make it an efficient process for community, staff, and the school, and we value a collaborative approach with schools. LAUSD believes in high performing schools and holding schools accountable. We are open to those conversations on how schools have done.

Gail Greely

Coordinator, Office of Charter Schools

Oakland Unified School District

Q: What have you seen schools do that make for a successful renewal petition?

A: Our office publishes both a Petition Evaluation Instrument for all charter petitions and a Charter Renewal Handbook that includes guidance on the renewal process and on the charter renewal quality standards.  Using these resources can help a school produce a more complete document that supports their case for renewal with specific evidence related to our standards. However, the specific content of the school’s renewal petition is less important than the quality of its performance throughout the preceding charter term.

Q: What are some common issues you see schools fail to address in their petitions that hurt their renewal efforts?

A: Our quality standards cover four key questions: 1) Is the school academically sound?; 2) Is the school an effective and viable organization?; 3) Has the school been faithful to the terms of its charter?; and 4) Is the school’s petition reasonably comprehensive?  A school that has not implemented the program described in the charter and has not met or made substantial progress towards meeting the measurable pupil outcomes (MPOs) in its charter is unlikely to be renewed.  Note that making a case for meeting or making substantial progress towards MPOs involves using data that the school has been collecting over the entire term of the charter, so strong data collection systems are critical. We respect the charter as an agreement between the district and the school. The school accepts strong accountability in exchange for increased autonomy. They are accountable for achieving the outcomes described in their charter, so schools that fail to address these, or fail to describe why they have taken a different approach, hurt their renewal efforts.

Q: What would you like to see more of when you review renewal petitions?

A: Charter renewal provides a chance for the school to reflect on the preceding years and engage in serious self-evaluation, involving all stakeholders. We believe a quality school should take this opportunity to revise its charter to include plans for continuous improvement in all aspects of the academic program, management, and governance.

Q: Sometimes schools put in very aggressive goals in its original petition, often at the request of the authorizer, and then fall short of meeting those goals. What can a charter do in that situation?

A: Our quality standards look for student outcomes that are aligned with the school’s mission: clear, specific and measurable, and ambitious yet attainable. Because we review a school’s performance with respect to its student outcomes every year, a school concerned about over-ambitious goals should be raising the issue with our office during the charter term. Then during charter renewal, the school can provide in its petition an explanation (based on reliable data) of why the outcomes were not met (or substantial progress was not made) and describe what they propose as ambitious and attainable goals for the next charter term.

Q: When do you advise a school to submit their petition, and what specific information do you request, above and beyond the normal petition?

A: We accept charter renewal petitions no earlier than October 1st of the charter’s final year and recommend submission no later than the end of January. Schools that consider themselves at risk of denial may wish to submit earlier to allow time for appeals. In addition to the charter petition, we require a Performance Report that is to be prepared in draft prior to our site inspection and then finalized as part of the charter renewal submission.

Q: Are there things prior to the one year renewal process that you would like to see charters do? What would you like to see three years ahead of renewal? Two years?

A: From the first day of operation, schools should make sure that they are tracking the MPOs to which they have committed in their charters. Progress toward achievement of these outcomes should be checked regularly throughout the school year, with program adjustments made in response. As renewal approaches, but while there is still time for meaningful change, schools should review the renewal quality standards published by our office and honestly assess their own performance. Rather than viewing charter renewal as a periodic compliance task, the MPOs and charter renewal standards should be integrated into the school’s continuous improvement process.

Dr. Lucretia D. Peebles

Director, Charter Schools Department

Santa Clara County Office of Education

Q: What have you seen schools do that make for a successful renewal petition?

A: The ones that are successful are conscious of new laws pertaining to renewals. Successful schools also set up meetings, understand expectations, understand if anything has changed in the guidelines, and get the information up front to find out the requirements. It is the school’s responsibility to know the laws, understand what the guidelines are ahead of time, and understand logistics.

Q: What would you like to see more of when you review renewal petitions?

A: More comprehensive in the educational program section, more clarity in governance, and how parents will be included.

Q: Sometimes schools put in very aggressive goals in its original petition, often at the request of the authorizer, and then fall short of meeting those goals. What can a charter do in that situation?

A: Be as transparent about your goals as you can. Develop realistic objectives and be aware of what you can implement. You might need to do a material revision if you aren’t meeting goals, and you should talk to your authorizer about the best way to go about this. Be up front about your problems.

Q: When do you advise a school to submit their petition, and what specific information do you request, above and beyond the normal petition?

A: Early fall for a charter expiring the following June would be best practice.

Q: What is your main piece of charter renewal advice to schools that are going through the renewal process this year?

A: Become familiar with guidelines and work with your authorizer so that you understand how the process will be handled. Know times and roles and responsibilities.

 

EdTec would like to thank the above authorizers for contributing their time, knowledge and charter renewal advice. All of the authorizers echoed throughout each interview that renewal should not be viewed as simply an obligatory assignment to be completed every five years, but rather, a continuous process to track progress and improve the school. All charters face renewal at some point, and no matter where your school might currently fall on that timeline, it’s always a good time to:

  • Stay in the know on requirements and timelines. Rules and laws related to the renewal process are continually changing and it’s critical to stay on top of which ones apply to your school. Furthermore, your authorizer might have specific oversight guidelines and timelines they want you to follow. In general, it is recommended you start drafting your renewal petition 18 months to no less than a year in advance of the charter expiration date. This will give you adequate time for back and forth communications between you and your authorizer and an appeals process if necessary. Check with your authorizer regarding exact timelines for submitting the renewal petition.
  • Maintain constant and open contact with your authorizer. Communication is particularly important because you want to create context around both the successes and shortcomings of your school well before the renewal year. Authorizers appreciate transparency and want schools to be realistic about their plans. Come to an agreement on oversight ahead of time and know what their expectations are so you can tailor your petition to address any specific concerns.
  • Utilize data assessment and analysis. While qualitative aspects such as positive testimonials are important, authorizers like to see hard facts and longitudinal assessment data to substantiate how you are meeting your goals and delivering results. Concrete, specific and measurable data is a convincing way to show your authorizer that you can both back up your claims on past performance and have a tool for formative assessments going forward. Use data analysis to showcase your successes. At the same time, the data can expose your weaknesses – so be honest about the areas you’re looking to improve, and how you plan to focus on those areas.
  • Get a strong handle on your finances. The petition budget and cash flow are concrete areas that your authorizer will review closely, especially in this unforgiving economic environment. Make sure your assumptions make sense with the goals outlined in the rest of your petition. Be able to speak intelligently on the financial situation of your school. If you are working with any consultants or back-office providers in this area, leverage them to go through every assumption with you so that you have a thorough understanding of your finances.
  • Engage key stakeholders. Don’t wait until you are walking into your renewal hearing to garner community support. Authorizers want to see an active, involved board that is well aware of the details of the renewal petition, along with parents, staff, and students who are genuinely excited and interested in the continued existence of their school.
  • Set aside time for regular self-evaluation. Throughout each year, periodically reflect on how your school is meeting the MPOs pledged in its original charter. Set up a process for developing program adjustments to address any deficiencies. Have a team devoted to self assessment and responsible for executing and holding the school accountable to a results-oriented action plan.
  • Budget time and resources for strategic planning. In addition to regular check-ins on the progress of meeting the charter’s MPOs, plan time for key stakeholders to establish real, viable tactics for the long-term health and wellbeing of your school. Conduct a needs assessment and develop a clear strategic roadmap to establish and tackle long-term objectives for the sustainability of your school.

Though many aspects of the renewal process can be trying, you should remember that it is also a great opportunity to showcase your school’s strengths and accomplishments. Stay in control of the process by starting early and regularly communicating with your authorizer. This gives yourself the best chance possible at getting your charter renewed.

 

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