The opening of a new St. Paul charter school designed by associates of Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher and supported with county funds has been postponed after organizers failed to hit their enrollment target.
The school’s startup coordinator, Donna Swanson, said concerns about the coronavirus reduced the opportunities to recruit new students over the winter. In June, when the school first applied for public school funding, it reported just 109 students, well short of its goal of 150-250.
Organizers now hope to open in fall 2023.
“I know we’re going to get this done. We just need a little more time,” Swanson said in an interview.
Fletcher in 2019 and 2020 awarded $35,000 in sheriff’s office contracts to Swanson – a former teacher and executive director of the St. Paul Police Foundation – in order to start a school that would focus on “leadership and public service” and highlight “career options for students.”
In contrast to the many racially homogeneous charter schools in the metro, the school was to be intentionally ethnically diverse. A goal was to “improve interactions between all Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office employees and the many communities that make up Ramsey County,” according to one of the contracts.
The sheriff’s office announced the plans for the School of Leadership for Public Service in an October 2021 news release sent to the nearly 5,000 subscribers to the sheriff’s office email notices.
In response to the news release, Ramsey County Manager Ryan O’Connor wrote to Fletcher that the announcement may have been an impermissible use of public property.
“How the information was provided to the media and public raises policy, budgetary, legal, ethical and reputational questions for Ramsey County and, as one part of a larger governmental organization, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office,” he wrote.
O’Connor also asked the sheriff to explain the $35,000 in grants he awarded to Swanson, but an explanation never came.
“The county manager has not received a response to the letter,” Kristina Saksvig, a county spokeswoman, said this week.
Magnuson, whose last day working for the sheriff’s office was Friday, didn’t see anything wrong with spending public money on starting a charter school.
“We saw the school as an extension of trying to serve the youth,” he said in an interview. “We felt that everything we were doing fit in the umbrella of trying to add value to the youth.”
STATE, FEDERAL FUNDS
The school received $71,169 in per-pupil state aid in July, based on its projected enrollment for the upcoming school year.
If the school never opens, the money must be returned. If it opens in 2023, the state will make partial payments of per-pupil aid until the state recovers the $71,169, said Wendy Hatch, chief of staff for the Minnesota Department of Education.
“This is a really typical thing that happens with charter schools,” Hatch said.
The school also was awarded a federal charter school startup grant worth roughly $250,000, according to Jim Zacchini, executive director for the Minnesota Guild, the school’s charter authorizer.
Zacchini said the startup grant was designed to be extended for delayed openings, so the school will be able to access those funds as it prepares to open next year.
“They’ll actually be in a better position” by waiting a year, he said.
Swanson won’t have to rush to hire teachers, and people are no longer as worried about gathering in places where the school can recruit students, he said.
“With its emphasis on public service and leadership, obviously in a multicultural society … we love that idea,” Zacchini said of the school’s mission. “We’re looking forward to having the time to do it well.”
The school was going to operate in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood in the former St. Columba Catholic school, which has hosted multiple charter schools since it closed in 2004. It’s unclear whether that space will be available next year.
Still, Swanson is confident the school will come to fruition, saying the delay will be a good thing.
“It has just felt so good in the last few months with being able to get into communities, being able to talk to key people, and knowing that the mission and the vision of this school is appealing to community,” she said.
Magnuson, a retired high school teacher who is listed on the charter school’s website as a founder alongside Fletcher and Swanson, is less optimistic.
The school is competing with growing charter schools in St. Paul that have built attractive new buildings, he said, and many are drawn to schools that cater to a specific ethnic group, not the multicultural environment Swanson is trying to build.
It’s especially hard to recruit middle and high schoolers, Magnuson said, and organizers did not seek the financial backing of large organizations, as some other charter schools do.
“If it sounds like we were a bit more naïve than we should have been, I think that’s a fair criticism,” he said. “It was (Swanson’s) dream and we didn’t make it work, and that makes me feel sad.”