Charting the Unknown

Bob Noël Announces Charter School Funding

by Ethan Stewart

Bob-Noel-File.jpgA month after winning reelection to the Santa Barbara School Board, Bob Noël took the first step toward delivering on his main campaign promise at Tuesday’s board meeting — and it turned out the reality of his campaign was far from what the other boardmembers had expected. Completely surprising his collegues, Noël proudly announced he had recently received some $405,000 in startup grant money from the state to pursue his goal of opening a charter school for grades 7-12 in the Santa Barbara School District. But the year ahead promises more than a few challenges if Noël is to realize his dream.

He first has to convince an already cash-strapped district to sign off on the idea, and then must open the doors of his American Charter School before September 30, 2007, in order to receive the seed money — all the while navigating a board with which he has had more than his fair share of conflict. The often controversial Noël ran a campaign this fall based upon three initiatives to create schools-within-a-school that would reach up to 500 students currently “falling though the cracks” of the district. These programs were a Safety and Emergency Preparedness Academy (which would resemble the recently terminated Junior ROTC program), a four-year Construction Trades Institute, and a pre-AP program for B-average students.

Unbeknownst to his fellow boardmembers, Noël considered a charter school as one possible way to accommodate these programs. Back in July, he and his fellow American Charter visionaries — who include education guru Marilyn Gevirtz, UCSB professor James Block, and former Santa Barbara School Boardmember Raphael Franco — applied for the state money in what Noël recently characterized as a “long-shot effort” to get startup funding; much to his surprise, the money came through last week. The pitch for the American Charter School was one of 45 proposals that received funding out of more than 240 applications statewide.

Although the charter application probably won’t officially come before the board until early next year, boardmembers and Superintendent Brian Sarvis have already expressed their reservations about the idea. Perturbed that Noël hadn’t discussed the charter school idea with the board earlier, trustee Nancy Harter commented that, even though the proposal has “potential,” she thought Noël had crossed an “ethical line” in not telling the board that he and his constituents were applying for the money. “I think the way he went about it really caught boardmembers off-guard, and he probably didn’t build the best foundation for its success by doing that,” explained Harter. For his part, Sarvis said the board would be “more than happy to study the idea,” but that he hoped he could set a date for a comprehensive discussion about the proposal before the official application was filed. He felt that the rest of the board might have “concerns.”

Noël admitted it will be an uphill climb to have the school in place by next fall, but as he put it, “I think it is going to be very hard to say no to this thing once all the details are worked out, because it is going to reach so many students currently in trouble and pulling down schools’ APIs [Academic Performance Index].” If the charter petition fails at the board level, Noël and his supporters have the opportunity to petition the County Board of Education for approval.

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