Charting the Unknown

Noël Defends Charter School Proposal

by Ethan Stewart

Never one to win a popularity contest amongst his fellow Santa
Barbara School boardmembers, Bob Noël was once again on the hot
seat last Tuesday as he officially pitched his plans for a new
charter high school. Last month, Noël shocked the board with the
announcement that he had received nearly $500,000 in state start-up
funds to create a new charter school. But it wasn’t until Tuesday’s
meeting that boardmembers could formally respond to the news and
ask questions. Holding true to their initial apprehensions, both
new and veteran boardmembers identified a seemingly endless list of
the would-be school’s potential pitfalls — punctuated by the very
occasional voice of support.

At the core of the American Charter School proposal are three
programs that served as the foundation for Noël’s successful
reelection campaign last fall, though at that time he pitched them
as schools-within-a-school, not as the basis for a charter. Drawing
on similar programs throughout the state, Noël detailed his vision
of a 450-550 student high school that prepares youths for college
while offering them the opportunity to take part in a Public Safety
and Emergency Preparedness Academy (which would replace the
similar, popular Junior ROTC program cut by the district last
spring), a Construction Technology Institute that teaches home
building and design, or an Advanced Studies Prep Program designed
to help students with a B or C average who defy both remedial and
AP placement. Noël told boardmembers that his motivation for
opening a charter school was to help “at-risk students, students
who need a highly structured environment, students who don’t find
what is going on in the classroom to be relevant … and kids in the
middle.”

But Noël’s fellow boardmembers remained less than convinced.
Although state law prevents a school board from voting down a
proposed charter based on financial concerns, Annette Cordero
expressed concern about the cash-strapped district’s losing an
estimated $3.5 million should the school open and achieve its
desired enrollment. Cordero also raised the issue of Noël’s
possible conflict of interest in helping to launch the school even
as he served on the board. The board’s newest member, Kate Parker,
echoed Cordero’s fiscal concerns and questioned the vastly
different directions of the charter’s three programs and whether
there was real parent support for the proposal. Laura Malakoff was
concerned about the scheduling and staffing issues of such a varied
school.

And the board’s newly appointed president, Nancy Harter, termed
some of the charter’s concepts “duplications of efforts” already
underway in public schools, such as the AVID program for
middle-of-the-road students and the vocational program at Dos
Pueblos High School. Harter also listed countless start-up
costs — including books, computers, and insurance — and asked
whether credits would be transferable to other high schools and how
discipline would be handled.

Even former boardmember Lynn Rodriguez turned out to speak
against the charter proposal, stating, “The district needs and
thrives on innovation, but I think those things should be done
without hurting other students in the district.

Noël himself admits it will be a “tough road” to realizing the
American Charter School, especially since it must open by next
September with at least 20 students in order to receive the state’s
funding. But he remained optimistic, saying in closing, “I really
think there is a chance to put together something that will be
successful.” He promised to distance himself from the actual
development of the school, should a conflict of interest be
identified. He urged boardmembers to continue expressing their
concerns in hopes of improving the final proposal and garnering
support.

But before the board can even vote on the proposal — which Noël
expects could happen as soon as February — he must compile a
petition that fleshes out the proposal in greater detail and
includes signatures from either 50 percent of the parents of
would-be students or 50 percent of would-be teachers.

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