Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill on Tuesday evening softly pitched his district’s board of trustees on the prospect of establishing a public charter school under one of Montana’s newest education laws. Such a school, Hill explained, would fall under the board’s direct supervision and potentially bolster any one of the district’s numerous existing initiatives in the academic arena.
“If you’re wondering where I stand on it, I think it’s a great opportunity for Missoula and for MCPS to in some way showcase what we already do,” Hill said. “There’s a lot of things that are happening around the state — and Missoula’s not the exception — that could be considered charter school worthy.”
Similar discussions have been playing out across Montana’s AA school districts in recent weeks as the state barrels toward a deadline on Nov. 1 for the first round of public charter school applications. At least three of those seven districts already have concrete proposals to submit to the Board of Public Education, which is tasked with reviewing and approving public charter applications. As the Flathead Beacon recently reported, trustees in Kalispell are weighing several loose options for proposals that could include transforming existing district programs into charter schools. And a spokesperson for the Helena Public Schools told Montana Free Press this week that the district is “exploring the possibility” of submitting a charter application.
If approved, the proposed charters would become the first schools established under House Bill 549. The law places oversight of those schools in the hands of existing public school boards and requires them to comply with the same laws applied to public schools, namely those governing curriculum, school quality and educator certification. HB 549 passed the 2023 Legislature with mild bipartisan support and was one of two charter school bills approved this session. The other, House Bill 562, was partially blocked by a state court last month pending resolution of a lawsuit alleging that its approach to charter school funding and oversight violates the Montana Constitution.
During his presentation in Missoula Tuesday, Hill pointed to several existing programs at MCPS he said might serve as inspiration for a charter school, among them the longstanding application-based Willard Alternative High School and the fledgling Missoula Online Academy, which is funded with one-time federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Christine Kolczak, the online academy’s dean, told trustees that charter school status could give the program more stability and help address staffing issues, noting that she has the equivalent of three and a half full-time employees serving a student population of 53, nine of whom have special needs.
“I’ve said consistently that I can build this program, and with this I think I could do it in a financial way that benefits the district,” Kolczak said.
At the Bozeman Public Schools, Superintendent Casey Bertram similarly sees HB 549 as a pathway to critical funding. In an interview with MTFP this week, he said the district plans to submit two charter school applications to the Board of Public Education, one for the Bridger Charter Academy at Bozeman High School and one for the Bozeman Charter School. Both have already been operating within the district for several years. However, Bertram noted that neither school qualifies for a roughly $350,000 annual payment granted by the state to each Montana public school. If they obtain charter status through HB 549, he continued, they will — a prospect that would benefit the district as a whole.
“As a district, we went through a $4.1 million budget reduction, so we have a structural imbalance in our budget and are dependent upon one-time funds to kind of make up that balance,” Bertram said. “Any additional state funding that’s provided reduces the number of one-time dollars we have to use to just balance our K-12 budget.”
Bertram said neither charter school would change under HB 549. Bridger Charter Academy would continue to serve roughly 80 to 100 students within Bozeman High School, and Bozeman Charter School would maintain its current focus on grades 3-8 with the hope, Bertram added, of increasing its enrollment after a recent decline. According to Bertram, the Bozeman school board will take final action on the proposed applications at its meeting on Oct. 23.
The charter school conversation in Great Falls has zeroed in on one specific target: teacher recruitment and retention. District officials are crafting an application for what they’ve dubbed a “Core School,” in partnership with the University of Montana Western and Great Falls College MSU. Jackie Mainwaring, director of student achievement at Great Falls Public Schools, and Rachel Cutler, the district’s elementary curriculum coordinator, told MTFP the plan involves transforming an existing elementary school into a training ground for college students entering the teaching profession.
Mainwaring explained that those students would be paid employees of the district, working as teaching aides or paraeducators while also qualifying for tuition waivers that would allow them to graduate without debt. The waivers would include a stipulation that recipients remain in Montana teaching for two to five years after graduation. The elementary school would also provide space for them to complete their college courses on-site, Cutler added, and elementary students would benefit from having more adults involved in their classroom instruction.
“If you think about the residency model in medicine, it’s a little bit like that,” Mainwaring said.
“Yeah, doctors have a lot of practice under the support of other more experienced doctors, and this does replicate that for teachers,” Cutler added.
Trustees in the Billings Public Schools approved a trio of charter applications this week. Two of those proposed charters center on high school students — one enabling students to obtain an associate degree in tandem with their high school diploma, and the other focused on helping students who are at risk of dropping out.
The district’s third application was inspired by an influx in recent years of migrants and refugees to the Billings area. Assistant Superintendent of K-12 Curriculum Chris Olszewski said that since 2016, the number of English language learners in the Billings schools has increased from 25 to roughly 350. Right now, he explained, those students are spread out across the district’s 33 schools, and the program designed to help them bridge language and culture barriers gets only about $25,000 per year in federal funding. The number of home languages those students speak has expanded too, ranging from Spanish to Mandarin Chinese to, more recently, Ukrainian. So Olszewski and others crafted a proposal for a Newcomer Center — a charter school dedicated to delivering core instruction to those students and supporting them and their families.
“They will have the English and the math, and then we’ll have a couple electives,” Olszewski said, “kind of a multicultural course that will not only celebrate their culture and allow them to demonstrate to us and celebrate their culture, but then talking about Montana culture and United States culture and that citizenship piece.”
Olszewski added that the center would serve as a bridge for multilingual learners to the district’s middle and high schools, and could expand to help meet the needs of such students in smaller nearby districts that may not have the resources to assist them.
Under the current timeline, the Board of Public Education will begin reviewing the initial round of HB 549 charter applications at its mid-November meeting. That review will center around roughly 30 different components identified by the board earlier this year, including enrollment plans, daily schedules, descriptions of academic programming and evidence of community support. The board has until late January to complete the approval process, with the expectation that any approved charter schools can begin operating by fall 2024.
Per HB 549, the application process for new charters will reopen annually. Once approved, charter contracts are good for five years, but schools must report their progress to the board regularly and the board can revoke a contract if any school fails to comply with its mission or with state or federal law.
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