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Proposed Charter School Prompts Concerns in Ojai

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

A proposed charter school in Ojai has generated concern among some parents and school district leaders who fear the project could become a financial drain on the city’s public school system.

Proponents Tuesday night submitted a formal petition to create the school. Ojai Unified School District Supt. Van Riley said the proposal could cost local schools more than $500,000 in annual revenue from the state.

Parents, many of whom pay steep housing prices to live in the high-achieving district, said they are worried their children’s educations would suffer.

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“This could be a serious problem,” said Lillian Tally, the mother of two students at Topa Topa Elementary School.

But proponents of Doniphan Oaks School, which would serve 360 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, insist that after details are worked out between the school and the district, money would not be an issue.

“In all my research of the 370 charter schools throughout the state, I haven’t found any being a drain on the districts,” said Craig Walker, a teacher at Ojai’s Matilija Junior High School who has led the effort. “The state has set this up so it won’t affect the school district negatively.”

A public hearing is scheduled Oct. 2. The school board must make a decision by Oct. 16.

If approved, Doniphan Oaks would be the second charter school in Ventura County, joining one in the Mesa Union School District. Another is being proposed by the Pleasant Valley School District on the Cal State Channel Islands campus.

Charter schools are publicly funded and run by private citizens. A nonprofit organization would run the Ojai school.

Walker said the schools must abide by the state’s accountability system--including Stanford 9 testing--but are not forced to comply with the same program and teaching restrictions as public schools.

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Walker, who teaches computer courses at Matilija, presented the proposal, which he said had been crafted by nearly a dozen local educators during the past six months. The school would focus on a project-based curriculum in environmental studies and visual arts. Officials hope the school would include up to 240 students from Ojai Unified and 120 from neighboring districts and private schools.

The theme is a good fit for the mountainside enclave that prides itself on its love of oak trees and thriving artists’ community, Walker said.

The school’s budget of about $1.8 million would be spent at the discretion of an 11-member governing board, Walker said. Proponents are targeting next September as a tentative opening date.

“It’s basically starting your own school from scratch,” Walker said. The school would hire about a dozen teachers, and about 25 local educators have already said they’d like to teach there. The Ojai Teachers Federation will present its opinion at the public hearing, Walker said.

According to a report presented to the school board Tuesday by Riley, the charter school could cause the district to lose $356,000 to $527,000 a year in state funding, even after adjusting for fewer students.

And the effect could be even greater, Riley said, depending on the interpretation of a new state law requiring school districts to provide facilities to charter schools free of charge.

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