Charter school relicensed amid rifts

A charter school in Carson City got its state sponsorship renewed for another six years Friday despite complaints that the online school bought a $28,000 pickup truck from the principal’s daughter-in-law.

Tom McCormack, the charter school consultant for the Nevada Department of Education, called the purchase “illegal and unethical” because of the conflict of interest as well as the Silver State Charter School’s failure to follow state purchasing guidelines for giving public notice and competitive bidding.

McCormack also charged the school’s governing board with failing to exercise its authority over the school, which serves about 500 students in grades 7-12.

Eugene Paslov, a former state superintendent and former board member of Silver State Charter School, said the “board is not as independent as it should be.”

Paslov praised the teachers who work at Silver State but said they were afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. “They virtually have no protection from arbitrary school leadership,” Paslov said. “They have been threatened with firing for talking with board members. It is really a disturbing situation.”

Charter schools are considered to be part of the educational reform movement because they break from the model of a public school managed by a local school district. In theory, they are supposed to have more latitude to innovate.

Charter schools, like public schools, receive public funding, but are managed by private organizations as long they can maintain their “charter” with their sponsor, which could be a school district or the state Board of Education.

Jeffrey Blanck, a lawyer for the Silver State Charter School, accused the Nevada Department of Education of overstepping its authority by getting into day-to-day affairs of the school. Blanck also defended the purchase of the truck, saying it was not subject to state purchasing guidelines because it was under $50,000.

The lawyer said the school’s executive director, Steve Knight, had shopped around and was being punished “for a good deed” because he found a bargain. Knight said he had recused himself from making the purchase since a former board president, Edie Grub, approved the deal.

If the purchase was really “illegal and unethical,” the state should prosecute, Blanck said.

Keith Rheault, the state superintendent of instruction, said the state’s “main objective was not a long, drawn out court battle, but to get it corrected and bring it to light.”

The state Department of Education decided to allow the school to keep the 2006 Ford truck because the purchase price was within Kelley Blue Book value, but McCormack told the school that “any future purchase not compliant with the law will be disallowed and the funds returned to the state.”

In a 6-0 vote with one abstention, the Board of Education approved a charter renewal as long as the charter school adopted recommendations from the Department of Education for improving its by-laws and policies.

The governing board of the school has already complied with an earlier recommendation to give Knight a reprimand. McCormack, the state charter consultant, still complained to the Board of Education that the reprimand was not strong enough and wondered if the school’s leadership understood its mistakes. Chris Wallace, the president of the Board of Education, questioned why the pickup was even needed.

Knight said the school wanted a diesel truck as a tax incentive or break on paying taxes on gasoline. He said staff uses truck to go to meetings and conduct business. It also used to haul equipment for the school.

In a dramatic twist to Friday’s state board meeting, former U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan interrupted the meeting to ask for a “brief recess” with Superintendent Rheault and the education department’s lawyer, Ed Irvin.

They then brokered a deal in which a local group wanting to start a new charter school called the Provost Academy and its private contractor to manage the school, Edison Learning Inc., would drop their lawsuit against the Nevada Department of Education.

They have been in a drawn-out battle over the charter school application because the Department of Education has concerns with the contractual arrangement for Edison to manage the school.

In return for dropping litigation, the board agreed to give the group more time to improve the application so it can be re-considered at an August meeting of the Board of Education.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal .com or 702-374-7917.