Instructor Proposes Ojai Charter School : Education: Officials have doubts about publicly funded institution that would operate without restrictions of state code.

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A former Ojai teacher has proposed opening Ventura County's first charter school, which would be publicly funded but largely free from the constraints of the state education code.

Deanna Nakosteen, who for seven years ran a private school in Ojai, has asked the Ojai Unified School District board to approve the founding of Discovery Charter School.

With small classes, individualized instruction and an emphasis on arts, music and other non-academic subjects, the school would offer families a no-cost alternative to expensive private schools and highly structured public schools, the 55-year-old Nakosteen said.

"It's about choice, about giving parents a choice," she said.

But Ojai school officials warned Nakosteen on Tuesday that they viewed her proposal with great caution.

Under state law, although local school boards approve the founding of charter schools in their areas and are legally liable for them, districts have limited control over the schools' day-to-day operations.

"If we approve a charter, we have vast responsibility and very little control," Ojai school board President Muriel Lavender said.

Featured in a Time magazine story this week, charter schools are becoming increasingly popular across the country, with numerous states allowing individual schools to break free from the public education system.

California joined the movement in 1992 under legislation sponsored by Sen. Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara) that permits up to 100 charter schools statewide.

So far, the state has granted 70 charters, with two pending.

Although California allows start-up charter schools--such as that proposed by Nakosteen--most are public schools that have converted to independent status.

In Santa Barbara, for instance, Peabody Charter School was previously a public elementary school.

Peabody officials said the change has given them more financial freedom.

Under a charter, schools receive their per-pupil funding, roughly $3,200 per year, directly from the state instead of through the district office.

Charter schools may contract with the district to provide services such as bus transportation, school maintenance or bookkeeping, or they may elect to keep their overhead low by doing such tasks themselves.

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"It gives us a little more autonomy in the way we spend the money," Peabody secretary Kathryn Marr said. "Our money is also less watered down when it doesn't come through the district."

Peabody is doing some things differently, such as spending a certain amount of state textbook money on other classroom materials and contracting with parents to do weekly volunteer work.

But in other ways, the school operates the same as before: Peabody hires only state-credentialed teachers, who earn the same as teachers in other Santa Barbara schools, and the school has classes as large as other public schools.

In addition to financial independence, charter schools have more academic freedom.

Although they must meet the state minimum of 175 school days per year, they may structure their days any way they like, free of the state requirement to spend a certain amount of time on core academic subjects.

Nakosteen is proposing taking advantage of that freedom. She said she would spend the mornings teaching core subjects such as math, science and reading, while devoting most afternoons to the fine arts, field trips and other activities.

Discovery Charter School would operate much the same as the small Discovery Place school that Nakosteen operated from her upper Ojai Valley home from 1984 to 1991.

That school had up to 14 elementary school students at a time. Nakosteen said the school folded because children who reached the fifth grade generally wanted to be in classrooms with more students.

Nakosteen would start the charter school in a downtown Ojai building, where she already has reserved space.

She said she envisions beginning with about 15 children in kindergarten through fourth grade and gradually adding more, although she would try to have no more than 15 students per class.

Although the school's core teachers would have state credentials, as Nakosteen does herself, she said she would negotiate teachers' pay on an individual basis rather than signing a contract with the local union.

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Don Ainsworth, president of the Ojai Federation of Teachers, said he is concerned about Nakosteen's proposal.

One worry, he said, is that Discovery Charter School would draw students from Ojai's other public schools, leading the district to have to lay off teachers.

He also wonders how the school could operate with such a low student-teacher ratio.

"My opinion is there's no way it's going to financially fly," he said. "The only way they're going to able to do it financially is if they pay their teachers next to nothing and have a lot of volunteers."

Considering that the state pays about $3,200 per student per year, limiting each class to about 15 students would give the school about $48,000 per class to cover salaries, administrative costs and other overhead.

"That's not a whole lot of money," Ainsworth said.

But Nakosteen said she would supplement state money with private donations and fund-raisers. In addition, she said she planned to turn over to the school a private health-food distribution business she runs that brings in about $450 per month.

Parent volunteers could run the business, she said, and put the money toward the school.

Having worked for 12 years in the Rio Elementary School District outside Oxnard, Nakosteen said she wanted to pay her teachers well.

"Being a teacher myself and wanting to be professional, too, I don't want to have really low services," she said.

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