Following a rough early start to the year when they lost their public funding stream, Heartwood Educational Collaborative overseers emerged this week at Ross Valley School District to see if there’s a way to continue their community’s operations with some type of district support.
By KERI BRENNER | Marin Independent Journal
“We can’t go deep (into private financing) for a second year in a row,” Heartwood director Stephanie Felton-Priestner told the district’s board of trustees at its public meeting Tuesday. “We don’t have a charter, we don’t have authorization for public funds.”
Felton-Priestner said the Heartwood community, now down to about 77 students from its previous peak of about 170, has formed a 501(c)3 nonprofit to help finance a lease for several classrooms in yurts and other spaces at the Girl Scouts’ Bothin Youth Center west of Fairfax off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. However, most of the instruction is done as independent study through either home school collectives among privately financed parent groups or by individual parents who signed state home school affidavits, she said. Teachers are paid with private funds by the parent groups, she added.
“We’re looking to find strong partnerships,” Felton-Priestner said Wednesday after Tuesday night’s half-hour presentation before the Ross Valley board on the Waldorf-based curriculum, values and mission of the Heartwood community. “We’re looking at how to move forward in a way that supports the values that we hold, without harming someone else.”
Ross Valley board members agreed to form an ad hoc committee of board members and district staff to meet several times in the next six weeks with Heartwood officials to discuss options. Those could include a charter that is authorized by the district, an independent study program under the district umbrella, a “program of choice” within the district, or some other structure.
“I would like to ask our trustees, and (superintendent) Rick Bagley, to open their minds a little bit and trying to figure out a way — I think there would be financial benefits — to doing a district home school independent study that works with you,” said district parent Stephen Pringle. “I think we could capture a lot of people for the district but also help you (Heartwood) keep your school. I think there’s a lot of kids who probably need home school or independent study, and certain schools aren’t a right fit for them at certain times.”
Felton-Priestner emphasized that Heartwood was not seeking to use any district facilities for its classes and “there would be no Proposition 39,” she said, in a reference to the ongoing conflict between Ross Valley School District and Ross Valley Charter. The charter has invoked state Prop. 39 to mandate “reasonably equivalent” space for the charter inside district buildings, and has sued the district over the amount of space the charter was granted inside the district’s White Hill Middle School in Fairfax. Another hearing on that suit is set for Nov. 14 in Sonoma Superior Court over the terms of a special education space that the judge allotted in his ruling.
“We would like to remain as neutral as possible,” Felton-Priestner said Wednesday of the intense conflict between the district and the existing charter. “We want to move forward in harmony with the community around us, and we need to get to the point where we feel some alignment.”
Ross Valley board member Wesley Pratt said Tuesday he needed to quash any rumors on social media that some type of agreement between the district and Heartwood had already been struck — or that he was critical of either Heartwood’s dedication to its kids and families or of Ross Valley Charter’s curriculum.
“There is a massive rumor mill out there right now that suggests that I, or some of my other (board) members, have a problem with curriculum at the current charter,” Pratt said. “There’s a rumor out there that we’ve already entered into a some sort of agreement with Heartwood.
“Of course that’s not true,” he said to Felton-Priestner. “You’re here to make a presentation. I just wanted to make sure that was out there from my perspective. That regardless of what happens, I very much appreciate your making a presentation, and I respect your dedication to education and the children.”
Felton-Priestner said Wednesday that Heartwood had suffered no penalties — other than losing its public funding stream — after its authorizer, CalSteam 1, a Southern California-based charter management group, self-revoked its own charter after a crackdown by its district overseer, the Liberty School District in Petaluma, over accountability and paperwork. CalSteam 1 was closed.
The Sonoma County Office of Education looked into the situation and considered a possible outside audit of CalSteam 1, but eventually decided against the outside audit after the situation was resolved by normal means, said Jamie Hansen, a spokesperson for the Sonoma County office.
“SCOE did do an internal audit on CalSTEAM I, focusing on Average Daily Attendance only,” Hansen said in an email. “This would be something we would do for any Local Education Agency (district or charter) submitting attendance, prior to sending the data to the California Department of Education. Any Heartwood students would have been included in this check.
“We did not do any outside audit or verification of expenditures, specific to the charter or Heartwood specifically,” she said.
In her presentation Tuesday, Felton-Priestner said Heartwood had several key essential values in education the community had to keep in their goal to raising “free human beings,” she said. Those were: unique wonder; love; truth, beauty and goodness; heart is essential as well as mind; nature; exploring the world; the power of doing; and education should be both rigorous and joyous.