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PEC Hears Pitch For Local Polaris Charter School

on July 18, 2019 - 9:13pm
LAPS Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus gives his presentation on the concerns about the proposed charter school at Tuesday’s School Board Meeting. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/
The Polaris team answers questions posed by the Public Education Commission at the Community Input Meeting Tuesday at UNM-LA. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/
Los Alamos Daily Post

A proposed new charter school for Los Alamos, Polaris Charter School, was the subject of a Community Input Meeting conducted by the New Mexico Public Education Commission Tuesday at UNM-Los Alamos.

PEC grants charters and oversees charter schools in New Mexico. The 10-member commission will make a decision on Polaris’ application by Sept. 1. Should the charter be granted, the Polaris board plans to open the school in Fall 2020. The members of the Polaris founding team filed a 300 or so page application in May to the Commission.  

Proposed Polaris Board members answered questions posed by the Commission and spoke briefly about Polaris. Los Alamos Public School Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus gave a 10-minute presentation on concerns of the District and the School Board about Polaris coming to Los Alamos.  

School Board Secretary Jenny McCumber spoke about her conflict of interest concerns about founder and proposed board member of Polaris, Bill Hargraves, being involved with the Polaris application since he also serves on the Los Alamos School Board.

Eight citizens spoke in favor of approving the charter school application. Among them was psychiatrist Dr. Brian Haigh, who said he sees 150 kids a month in his practice.

“I assure you, although things have improved, kids are still falling through the cracks,” Haigh said.

Polaris founding member and Interim School Leader Elizabeth Martineau explained the history of the Polaris project. It began four years ago when a group of Los Alamos educators and citizens applied for a XQ Foundation grant to re-imagine public schools. The Los Alamos plan made it to the finals, but didn’t win funding.

The discussions around XQ resulted in the formation of a team to explore starting a charter school based on the model developed during the grant process in 2017, Martineau said.

“We are committed to public education, so we decided on a charter school rather than a private school,” Martineau said. “We decided to focus on middle school because it’s such a critical time for student development. Polaris will provide another option for students and families. Our community is innovative and due for a change in public education.”

Many students learn best in a small setting, Martineau said. Polaris plans to begin with 75 students and possibly expand to 250 eventually. The students will have daily advisement time and the staff and students will work together to develop empathy and camaraderie. The school will use a model of restorative justice, focusing on restitution and consensus rather than punishment.

“Our model weaves social, emotion learning into every aspect of education,” she said.

Students will spend mornings on math and language arts. Afternoons will be devoted to integrated projects. The projects will involve students with the broader community as well as provide personalized learning and build habits of success, Martineau said.

“Our mission is to engage students in the community of northern New Mexico,” she said.

The proposed Polaris Board consists of long-time educators Liz Martineau, Branden Willman-Kozimor, Amy Bartlett Gaunt, Scott Johnson, Jane Clements and Ken Holmes, as well as retired engineer Bill Hargraves and Robert Gibson.

Hargraves and Gibson have served the community in many capacities, including as members of the Los Alamos School Board (Hargraves) and County Council (Gibson).

Commission Chair Patricia Gipson pressed the Polaris team hard on how their later starting time would impact before-school care for students.

The team said that plans are in the works to provide activities before and after school, either by staff or by working with existing community entities. Polaris also has set up a foundation to raise money for this type of expense, Martineau said.

Gipson also asked about transportation for students who do not live in Los Alamos. Commissioner Karyl Ann Armbruster who represents Los Alamos on the PEC pointed out that Los Alamos Public Schools does not provide transportation for out-of-district students. Hargraves pointed to the excellent bus service within the County and the bus service provided by Regional Transit District to the Valley and Santa Fe.
Commissioners were concerned that Polaris has yet to find a site for the school. Hargraves acknowledged that this has been a tough hurdle for the Polaris team. They continue to explore options with Los Alamos County as well as private space options, he said. The use of portable buildings may be necessary if there are no other options, he said.

Since the state is no longer providing small school subsidies, Gipson expressed the Commission’s worries about funding for the charter school. Although charter schools receive the same amount of funding per student as other public schools, the commissioners worried that overhead expenses could not be met. Hargraves pointed out the budgeting expertise of various Polaris team members as well as the group’s plan to use a back-end service called ED TECH to manage such things as payroll and bookkeeping.

Commissioner Ricardo Caballero worried about the lack of diversity on the Polaris team. Hargraves said the group is reaching out to communities of color on and off the Hill to remedy this, since Los Alamos is overwhelmingly Caucasian, this has posed some challenges.

Discussion of the proposed charter school continued during the Los Alamos School Board Meeting Tuesday evening. McCumber once again raised the issue of a conflict of interest on the part of Board member Hargraves. Her concerns were a possible conflict with a state statute that states a person cannot be both a member of a school board and on a charter school board.

Further, McCumber said Hargrave’s presence on the School Board places Superintendent Steinhaus in “an impossible position” because the Board is in effect, Steinhaus’ boss.

“How objective can he be,” McCumber asked those present.

School Board Member Andrea Cunningham agreed with McCumber and also raised the possibility that Hargraves might use his position on the School Board to benefit Polaris. Board President Ellen Ben-Naim said that the School Board Association Code of Conduct cautions board members to avoid being placed in a conflict of interest.

“The remedy to these concerns is to be clear about my roles,” Hargraves responded. “Nothing that has been said so far indicates a problem.”

Hargraves said that if the charter is approved, he will make a decision about what do, as he has no interest in serving on two boards.

He also said other board members have conflicts of interest and this is inevitable in a small town. He said he would not participate in decisions involving the charter school.

Hargraves said he had consulted with the PEC staff and was told it was not a legal problem for him to be part of the application process.  

The LAPS Board, minus Hargraves reached a consensus on seeking legal advice on the situation.

Steinhaus gave the full presentation that there wasn’t time to complete at the Community Input Meeting. He assured the board that if the charter is approved he and his staff will offer cooperation and communication to its board.

Steinhaus said that middle school kids are at a unique period of change and the District has the expertise and experience to deal with this.

The charter school would be “experimenting with kids’ lives during a vulnerable time” by using new models and practices.

Steinhaus said he is concerned that the charter team has not met with other local school boards that would be impacted, including Jemez, Espanola and Pojoaque.

“There is an inherent tension between a school district and a charter school,” he said. “Sharing resources, facilities, transportation and funding make it inevitable.”

Because of the enrollment lottery required of charters, Steinhaus said he worries that the charter could not focus on a specific student population as it intends.
Steinhaus suggested exploring a “middle school of choice” concept to fill the needs the proposed charter school would fill.

“We have an incredible staff at Los Alamos Middle School,” he said.

LAPS priorities and Polaris objectives overlap, Steinhaus said.

He said the District has moved to solve many of the problems that existed four years ago, including many initiatives to support student mental health.

More than 85 percent of LAMS staff is trained in mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

Electives and options have been greatly expanded over the past two years at the middle school, he said.

“LAMS is a top-rated school in terms of academic achievement and extracurricular activities,” Steinhaus said.

Unintended consequences of having a charter school in town include lost curriculum alignment from elementary through high school, missing scope and sequence of math and language arts, budget cuts for the school district and students not being prepared for high school culture and rigor, Steinhaus said.

The School Board, aside from Hargraves who recused himself, voted to concur with Steinhaus’ presentation and directed him to submit it to the PEC during the three-day comment period, which ends Friday.

Those wishing to comment or learn more about charter schools should visit Learn more about Polaris Charter School at