14 Sep

Required oversight of on-line virtual school may be no more than virtual

They ran perpetually throughout the summer, TV ads for schools along with other hot-weather spots for fast food and beach wear. Engaging young professionals, standing next to engaging middle-school versions of themselves, explain how their studies at Oregon Connections Academy readied them for success in life.

The spots are part of a promotional build-up that has helped explode the enrollment of the on-line for-profit school past 4,000, making it a respectable-size Oregon school district – virtually. The Legislature has increased the permissible number of on-line students, and ORCA and other virtual schools are approaching that level.

But if Oregon Connections is expanding and remodeling its virtual address, it has dramatically changed its – you should excuse the expression – physical address, and notably changed its residential expenses.

Oregon law requires on-line schools, like other charters, to be sponsored by a school district, which stores the on-line school’s records – apparently the Legislature wasn’t comfortable just having them in the cloud – and, at least in theory, provides some oversight. For its decade of existence, Oregon Connections has had its mailing address – as opposed to its emailing address – at Linn County’s Scio district”, with a student body of 650, considerably smaller than the on-line enrollment it oversaw.

In exchange, ORCA, collecting the per-student Oregon state payment, passed 10 percent per K-8 student and 5 percent per high school student on to Scio, which split the money with the student’s home district.

But Oregon Connections has now found a better deal. For this year, it has switched its sponsorship to the yet-smaller Santiam Canyon school district in Mill City, 30 miles east of Salem, with a 2012-2013 enrollment of 528. Explained now-departed ORCA School Board Chairman Jeff Kropf, a founder of the online academy and a former state senator, “The ORCA board is truly excited to be able to offer new educational opportunities for our students by establishing a new partnership with the Santiam Canyon School District.”

Whatever the new educational opportunities, there is one clear attraction to the new sponsor: According to the ORCA-Santiam Canyon contract on file with the Oregon Department of Education, Oregon Connections Academy now keeps 99 percent of the state’s per-student payment. The contract does says that ORCA will pay Santiam Canyon a percentage-based management fee, but the contract doesn’t specify what the percentage will be.

“We felt we’d plateaued, so we were looking for a different deal,” said Wes Becksted, current chairman of the ORCA board, in a recent interview. “I think Mill City came up with a better deal financially, but it’s not that lopsided.” The difference is partly covered, he said, by Mill City providing some additional services.

Another appeal is that Todd Miller, new superintendent of Santiam Canyon, is the former executive director of Oregon Connections Academy.

To Gary Tempel, superintendent of Scio, ORCA’s decision process was simpler. “They wanted more money,” says Tempel. “Their minimums were set by the state, but not their maximums.”

And all those TV ads cost money.

In one way, you could say that Scio just got outbid, or rather underbid, in a process Tempel compares to the old show “Name That Tune,” where contestants bid lower and lower on how many notes they would need to identify a song. But Tempel also claims a growing unease, as Oregon Connections grew from a few hundred students to its current level of 4,000, about how much oversight a district his size could actually provide, and what liability it might have.

“If it was going to be me in front of the judge at the end of the day, answering the summons,” he says, “we wanted to be in charge of that.”

Besides finances, Tempel cites differences with Oregon Connections on special education, with not all of its special ed teachers Oregon-certified, and ORCA’s interest in opening offices in other cities. The new ORCA-Santiam County contract declares a goal of all teachers being Oregon-certified, but doesn’t guarantee it.

The size, and presumably the capacities, of sponsoring districts doesn’t seem to be a general concern; both Becksted and Tempel cited a trend of on-line schools switching to smaller sponsoring districts.

All this is, of course, entirely legal; any district of any size has sponsoring powers. Tempel now says, “Small districts don’t have the capacity to supervise charter schools,” but it’s not clear where that question fits into the state’s education policy.

This Friday, Oregon Connections Academy has an on-line open house for potential students and families.

For anyone who wants to drop by Mill City, it’s a little more remote – and a little smaller – than Scio.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 9/13/15.

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