Leaders mum on reasons behind Nevada charter school change

By: - August 8, 2018 5:30 am
Freedom Classical sign

Executive Director Jeremy Christensen updates the sign at the Freedom Classical Academy charter school, which recently parted ways with its management company under unexplained circumstances.

A North Las Vegas charter school is rebranding and ending its relationship with its Arizona-based management company, but the motivation behind the changes is unclear.

American Leadership Academy opened the doors of its North Las Vegas campus near Ann Road and 5th Street for the 2017-18 school year. When the new school year begins next week, the K-8 school will be known as Freedom Classical Academy. Beyond the aesthetics of its new name, sentinel logo and uniforms, the management companies running the school are also changing.

The shift coincides with increased scrutiny of the parent company by Arizona education officials and the publication of a lengthy investigation by the Arizona Republic. The newspaper detailed how Glenn Way, the founder of American Leadership Academy, and his companies benefited from the state’s lax procurement laws and made millions of dollars building, leasing, selling and managing charter schools. American Leadership Academy operates a dozen charter schools in the Phoenix area. Arizona’s State Board for Charter Schools is currently investigating allegations of financial mismanagement.

Way, who stepped down from his role as chairman last year, denies any wrongdoing and told the Republic that profiting from a charter school is not illegal.

Freedom Classical Academy publicly announced its new name and the behind-the-scenes changes last month. The change was unanimously approved by the school’s board of directors in May and then approved by the Nevada’s State Public Charter School Authority in June. The charter authority oversees the majority of the state’s charter schools, which are not part of traditional public school districts.

Charter schools often contract with “education management organizations” to manage their financial services, payroll and other back-office functions. The North Las Vegas charter school was originally contracted with Charter One — a company owned by Way, two other American Leadership Academy executives and their attorney. With the split, they will now be contracted with Charter School Management Corporation, a California-based education management company, and Founders Education, a Pennsylvania-based employee-services company. Both companies are are already associated with other charter schools in Nevada.

When reached by phone and asked by the Current about the decision to break away from American Leadership Academy and Charter One, Freedom Classical Executive Director Jeremy Christensen replied, “Unfortunately, I cannot make any comments at this time.” He then hung up.

Former North Las Vegas Mayor Mike Montandon, who sits on the board of directors for the charter school, responded “no comment” via email. Attempts to reach two other directors on the board — Kyle Bybee and Megan Curtis — were unsuccessful. The last board member, Makeli Scholer said he’d spoken to other members of the board and it had been decided that no comment would be given. He also said the board is currently in the process of drafting a letter about the issue. He expects the letter to be posted to the school’s Facebook page within a week.

Charter schools receive public funding — beginning with approximately $5,700 per student from the state — and are therefore subject to Nevada open meeting laws. They are required to keep minutes of their board of directors meetings and make those minutes available to the public within 30 working days of the meeting. The Current requested minutes from the May 3 meeting where, according to its posted agenda, the board voted to sever ties with American Leadership Academy and Charter One. We received no response.

A lack of transparency when it comes to finances and decision-making is one criticism of charter schools. One report released in June ranked Nevada 47th in the nation when it comes to a “commitment to democratically governed schools.” That study factored in transparency, accountability and oversight policies at the state level where these schools are managed.

Christensen apparently addressed the rebranding issue directly to parents during an informational meeting held July 10. A few days later, the school sent a message to parents from Christensen. In it, the executive director apologized for having made what he described as comments that were “more negative than I would like” about the split.

The letter stated: “To speak of them in any light other than favorable belittle’s [sic] the support they have provided and is simply inappropriate. We are parting paths to pursue divergent goals and nothing more. We wish ALA and Charter One much success in their continued growth both in Nevada and across the country.”

Christensen goes on to praise Way, calling him “both a mentor and a friend.”

Christensen moved to Southern Nevada from Arizona to open the North Las Vegas charter school. He worked in various administrative roles for American Leadership Academy from 2009 until June 2018, according to his resume and Facebook profile. According to the application submitted to the charter authority, he grew up in Las Vegas and attended Jo Mackey Middle School and the College of Southern Nevada.

When the charter school opened in the fall of 2017, it resulted in CCSD delaying plans to build a new elementary school in the area. The district had planned to begin a new elementary school to relieve overcrowding of nearby schools.

Proponents of charter schools argue their existence helps growing public school districts, who because of the slow pace of funding and procurement policies take longer to open new schools. Opponents counter that, while the immediate relief from overcrowding is welcome, charter schools hurt public schools in the long run by taking the best performing students and leaving the students who are the most challenging to teach. When students opt to enroll in a charter school instead of their local district school, the latter loses that per-pupil funding.

Freedom Classical had 1,007 students enrolled during its inaugural school year. Demographic data submitted to the state show the student body is racially diverse but far more financially stable than students within Clark County School District. Nearly two-thirds — 63.3 percent — of CCSD students qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to zero at Freedom Classical. Similarly, no students at the charter were classified as English language learners (ELL), compared to 25.4 percent of CCSD students.

Because it is a new school, no data on performance is available yet.

Freedom Classical hopes to expand into a high school.

An application for an American Leadership Academy in Centennial Hills was previously submitted to the state charter authority but has since been withdrawn. Montandon was listed as the primary contact for that school in its 400-page application. Christensen and the rest of the board of director for Freedom Classical Academy were also attached to that now-shelved project.

Meanwhile, American Leadership Academy is still planning to open a charter school in Summerlin next year.

Nevada currently has 50 state-sponsored charter schools with 30,756 students. Collectively, they would be the third largest school district in the state, behind CCSD (358 schools, 321,648 students) and Washoe County School District (104 schools, 63,194 students). The charter school population is expected to rise.

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.