The Juniper School fell short of financial and academic performance expectations last year, raising concerns for Durango School District 9-R, but Juniper staff and board members say they have already rectified some problems and are working to solve others.
The school district’s annual review of the charter school’s performance for the 2018-19 school year raised concerns for poor performance on state tests, particularly in math, and a need to improve the school’s financial management.
“The district will be watching closely for improvement in these areas in the next year,” the review said.
The charter school received an overall rating of “yellow” for its performance in the 2018-19 school year, second from the highest level possible. The district gives yellow ratings when it has concerns about one or two areas it is evaluating but has seen improvements or appropriate changes.
Head of School Katie McCullough said she thought the overall rating was appropriate and that the feedback is key for the charter school, now in its third year, to succeed.
“We are in our infancy,” she said.
The 9-R board will use the findings in the review to help determine whether the school should be reauthorized by the district later this year, said Jackie Oros, who was contracted to complete the review.
Oros presented The Juniper School’s review to the 9-R board members last week. She commended the school on its strong climate and culture and described the steps the school has taken to address some points of concern.
The 9-R board questioned Juniper School officials but did not offer many comments.
“I am still, kind of, wary about your financial circumstances because, of course, that is the piece that allows a school to go on and do all the great things that you want to accomplish,” said Board Member Stephanie Moran.
FinancesMoran said she is concerned, in part, because the school leased buildings in the Tech Center that require investment to renovate, but the school does not own them. The 9-R board approved a $400,000 loan that could have been used to renovate the building, but The Juniper School never met the criteria to use the loan, she said.
In an email to The Durango Herald, Juniper School Board Treasurer R.J. Rieger said the school’s facilities committee has been in close contact with the landlords of the Tech Center buildings to work out a viable solution that will not place financial strain or hardships on the school.
The Juniper School also no longer plans to use the district’s loan for the renovations because it has found alternative financing, he said.
The Juniper School’s budget shows it planned to spend $197,880 on building rent in the 2019-20 school year. The school does not pay rent to use its current space above Big Picture High School, but it does pay for utilities and custodial services, said Julie Popp, spokeswoman for 9-R.
In Juniper’s first year, total revenue fell short of the budget by $91,838 and expenditures were over budget by $155,323, the annual review said.
Juniper ended the 2018-19 year with a budgetary surplus of $155,145, according the report. The school’s most recent audit was also clean, said Board President Heather Houk, in an interview with the Herald.
The school also plans to transfer its bookkeeping to 9-R after having problems with a private accountant, Rieger said during the 9-R board meeting. The report said the private accounting firm failed to provide the school with adequate attention or properly reconcile financials.
The school’s board has seen some turnover, and new members have a good understanding of their financial responsibilities, Oros said.
“This board now understands its role and responsibility as a charter school board and that you need a variety of varied revenue. ... That was not apparent in the founding board,” she said.
Test scoresOros and McCullough also described some of the steps the school has taken to improve its results on the Colorado Measures of Academic Success tests.
Juniper School students did not meet state expectations for academic achievement in math or academic growth in math and English on the 2019 CMAS tests.
As a result of the scores, the state gave the school a ranking of “priority improvement,” the second to lowest possible ranking. The school is also asking for a reconsideration of its ranking because it does not demonstrate the student growth or achievement that school staff have seen through internal testing, McCullough said.
The state didn’t capture students’ skills because it considered the scores of only about 40 fourth and fifth graders when measuring academic growth, which is a “tiny” portion of the schools’ 140 students enrolled in kindergarten through fifth grades, she said.
McCullough said she did not expect the rating to change through the reconsideration process, but she was interested in receiving state feedback about the school’s internal testing.
“We provide a robust, authentic assessment process at the school,” she said.
McCullough said the Juniper School knew it needed to improve math instruction before receiving the CMAS results and has already made changes to address it.
The school has designed new math tests, increased the amount of time spent on math in class and increased training for teachers, she told the board.
“We are well aware of our gaps in math and have implemented improvement and action steps,” she said.
Moran said she had “peace” about the school’s academic performance because its tests now align with the Colorado Academic Standards, which was not true before this year.
“We need to look at apples to apples, not 9-R’s apples to (The Juniper School)’s oranges vis-a-vis student achievement,” she said. “We are now able to do this and compare data points appropriately.”