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Closing North Star Charter Could Be A Boon, Or Burden, To Idaho’s Largest School District

Adam Cotterell
Boise State Public Radio

One of Idaho’s largest charter schools might not survive the next school year. North Star Charter in Eagle has struggled financially because of a building loan it can’t pay back.

The Meridian School District, which granted its charter, plans to revoke it. If that happens, the school could shut down.

That concerns mother of eight Stephanie Zimmerman. Five of her kids have attended North Star.

“I have loved North Star,” Zimmerman says. “My kids, if I can brag, are all very bright. And so we’ve wanted something that was going to push a little harder. We found that up at North Star.”

Despite her love of North Star, Zimmerman plans to homeschool her elementary age kids this year. The possibility of North Star losing its charter and closing mid-year is part of the reason.

“Kids are pretty adaptable but it’s still hard on them. They would lose a lot of time,” she says. “If you’ve got to switch schools and switch friends, you’ve got weeks there where they’re in school and they’re not necessarily learning. They’re readjusting. It’s wasted time.”

Zimmerman says she thought the financial crisis had been averted. So she was surprised when Meridian announced more than three weeks ago it would pull North Star’s charter.

Bill Russell was baffled by the district’s decision. Russell is one of North Star’s board of directors. He says the school has a solid academic record with good test scores and mentions in national high school rankings.

“It is really quite incomprehensible that anybody, including the Meridian School District wouldn’t be looking at North Star and saying ‘how do we make this place survive?’” Russell says.

The Meridian district is what’s known as North Star’s authorizer. Spokesman Eric Exline says the district is doing what it’s required to do in that role.

“The law outlines what your responsibilities are as an authorizer and our board feels that if you take on the responsibility of being an authorizer than you have to do it to the best of your ability,” Exline says.

That law says a charter must be financially sustainable for the next year. North Star has an understanding with its creditors through next summer. Meridian’s board says that’s not firm enough and allows the creditors to demand their money any time.

Russell says that wouldn’t happen. If it did the school could close mid-year and most of its more than 900  students would likely end up in Meridian schools. And that, says Exline, would be bad.

“If for example North Star were to close in February, the majority of the funding you would have received for those kids would already have been given to North Star and it wouldn’t end up coming to us,” Exline says. “We would have to serve those students without the resources; it would be a strain on our system.”

In Idaho, state money follows the student. But it’s handed out at certain times of the year. By far the largest chunk comes from attendance before November 1. So if North Star closed, it would be best for Meridian if that happened before November.

That could mean more than $4 million for the district if all of North Star’s students from the 2012-2013 school year  went to Meridian schools.  A closure later in the year would mean less money for Meridian.

If a lot of North Star parents take their kids out before school starts, like Stephanie Zimmerman, that would decrease the potential influx later. North Star board member Bill Russell says that’s not happening.

“We have seen some withdrawals but we’ve actually seen more new enrollments,” Russell says. “So at this point on a net basis, we’re up.”

School officials say 975 students have enrolled for fall compared to 920 last year.

North Star has to respond to Meridian’s intent to revoke the school’s charter by next week. If Meridian board members don’t change their minds then, North Star could pursue a public hearing.

Russell says if necessary, the school will appeal to the State Board of Education. If the state board sides with North Star the school can stay open. If it sides with Meridian, the law is a little ambiguous, but North Star would likely have to shut its doors before the end of the 2013/2014 school year. 

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio