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Basalt charter school plans abandoned

Allyn Harvey

The sometimes rancorous debate over where to place a charter high school in the valley cooled down earlier this week, after its proponents agreed not to build it next to Basalt High School.

The boards of the Roaring Fork School District and the Compass education project met in Basalt Wednesday to discuss, among other things, locations for the alternative high school. Compass officials told their counterparts at Roaring Fork that plans to build a charter school in the midvalley were being abandoned for now.

Compass currently runs two charter schools for children in kindergarten through eighth grade, one in Woody Creek and one in Carbondale, and is looking to extend that educational style to high schoolers.

“We’ve become very good about fashioning individual curricula around the passions of kids in K through 8, and I think we could do it well for kids in high school,” said Compass director Dave Throgmorton.

But their plan hit a snag in March after Compass founder George Stranahan announced that a plot of land near Basalt High School was a likely spot for a new 100-student charter high school. Even though first word of the plan was heard at a meeting of the Aspen School Board, it sent shock waves downvalley into the Roaring Fork School District offices.

Roaring Fork officials protested immediately. And on April 11, students, teachers and administrators made the trek upvalley to protest the plan in front of the Aspen School Board. Aspen is involved because Compass officials have said all along that they want to place the school under Aspen School District’s jurisdiction, even though they were considering a campus outside its boundaries.

State law gives the charter schools control over everything from budget, personnel and curriculum to the location of the school and the length of the school year. But it also requires them to be associated with an existing school district.

“I think our biggest concern was the impact it would have on the schools we already have in the district,” said Roaring Fork School Board chair Robin Garvik.

School funding in Colorado is tied to the number of students, so the loss of students could mean cutbacks in staff and programs. District officials estimate that a charter high school in Basalt could draw as many as 70 students from the Roaring Fork District, forcing it to fire three or four full-time instructors.

“What happens is you lose the economy of scale, which makes it impossible to offer a rich array of programs that make the schools better for everybody,” said Roaring Fork board member Bruce Matherly.

Roaring Fork officials also noted that their district already offers two alternative programs for high schoolers: Bridges and the Yampa Mountain High School. The Compass school would create a sixth choice for the district’s 1,500 or so high school students.

Throgmorton said Compass now plans to look for a site closer to Aspen, which was the original plan when the idea came up. “We’re still in the thinking stage on this,” he said.

The Basalt location was just a suggestion at the beginning of a long process. Throgmorton noted that no property has been purchased, nor have any plans been drawn.

He did say quite a bit of thought has gone in how the school would be run. It will hold classes year-round to accommodate students who are ski racers or have other demands on their time during the winter, and offer the individualized learning that characterizes the community schools in Carbondale and Woody Creek.

“People in the Roaring Fork District reacted negatively to the proposal with very little information,” he said.

But Garvik isn’t so sure the district overreacted; she thinks they simply made their point loud and clear. “Our experience is that usually when something like this comes out in the papers and we hear about it, things are further along than it appears.”


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