Charter school debate dominates monthly school board meeting

By Heather Michon

The question of charter schools again dominated the Fluvanna County School Board’s monthly meeting on Wednesday (April 8).

Charter schools are alternative programs that operate outside the regular public school system. 

Unlike tuition-based private schools, charter schools receive their funding from taxpayers.

These alternative schools require a local school board to issue a special “charter” to operate.

Detractors counter that charter schools have yet to consistently be shown to provide better learning outcomes than traditional schools and inevitably siphon tax dollars away from the public system. 

What is LIFE PREP?

The program proposed for Fluvanna County is called LIFE PREP, which stands for “Learn In Flexible Environments with Personalized Reimagined Educational Partnerships.” 

An undated draft proposal for LIFE PREP anticipates a starting enrollment of 120 students and a budget of $1.2 million, growing to 200 students with a $2 million budget in five years.

Superintendent Peter Gretz gave a presentation to school board members on the process of setting up charter schools – which the Virginia Department of Education says can take up to 18 months to complete – and the benchmarks these schools have to meet.

LIFE PREP was promoted at the March meeting as a “classroom-less” program for students with special needs that might be better addressed in a home environment. 

Virginia only has seven charter schools, most of them in Northern Virginia. Gretz said he and his team don’t have any experience integrating these types of programs, but “if you ask us to do it, we’re going to do it.”

Community Comments

Multiple residents took to the podium to ask the School Board not to do it.

“This seems to be an attempt to get paid with taxpayer money for making the choice to homeschool,” said Ashleigh Crocker. 

Given the issues in funding FCPS, “I don’t understand how it would possibly make sense to divert attention and funding to investigating the charter school proposal rather than including these children in the existing school framework,” said John Richardson.

“We’ve elected all of you to be the head of our house, and we’ve charged you with the care of our children,” said one mother-of-three. “And when my house is struggling financially, I don’t go buy another house.”

Jessica Jackson raised concerns about special needs children being moved towards a homeschooling environment. “We don’t need to separate kids. We need to put them together and teach them that even though we’re different, all children are valuable.”

To do otherwise was “sinful, and shows absolutely no love, no consideration, for the children.”

The final speaker during the first round of public comments was the woman who has been the driving force behind LIFE PREP.

“I’m Joy Barrisi, the villain in the room,” she said. 

She praised both the board and the administration for being open with her during the process and said they would be working on refining the proposal with the plan of submitting it to the state’s review board.

Barrisi grew emotional during her remarks. 

“I’m thankful to live here in Fluvanna County. I obviously don’t want to move to another county to get the support we need for our children. And I’m confident that working together, [FCPS] will find a way to support our kids in a way that would be best for them and lead to the outcomes that we need for our county.”  

State funding

The tightness of the district’s budget was brought home later in the meeting as Finance Director Brenda Gilliam told the board that the state had recently cut this year’s remaining funding by just under $900,000.

“Now you’re going to ask me: well, what are you going to do about that?” said Gilliam.  

She said they had stopped spending on non-critical tech purchases and might have to consider not making planned payments to the Health Insurance Claim Fund. 

Honoring Students

At the start of the meeting, board members took a few moments to honor a dozen athletes from the Indoor Track teams for their impressive performances at the Adidas Track Nationals. Three members of the band and choir were also recognized for their outstanding work this academic year.

Student Representative Diver Davis told board members that students were most concerned about issues like vaping, bullying, and what they see as the administration’s lack of communication on policy and rule changes. Students would also like to see more nutritious menu items in the cafeteria.

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