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State judge grants online charter school more time

October 13, 2018

A state judge has overruled the New Mexico Public Education Department’s order for a Santa Fe-based online charter school to close, buying the cyberacademy at least another year.

First Judicial District Judge Francis Mathew recently heard arguments from lawyers on both sides of a lawsuit filed in April, which challenges the state’s denial of a charter renewal for New Mexico Connections Academy. Last week, Mathew issued a ruling saying the Public Education Department’s action had violated state law.

He ordered the department to renew the school’s charter.

“We got the green light to keep going, and our school remains open,” Connections Academy Principal Elisa Bohannon said Thursday.

Former state Sen. Mark Boitano, a supporter of the school, lauded the judge’s decision.

“We just got it into fourth gear this year,” he said, “and we’re moving forward with a new leadership team, teachers and staff, all of whom are really excited about our school and committed to making it the best school it can be.”

The state Public Education Commission, which oversees oversees state charter schools, voted in December to reject the cyberacademy’s request for a charter renewal on the grounds that its student proficiency rates in math had dropped to 11 percent and that the school had received an F grade for two years in a row from the state. The Public Education Department later ordered the school to shut down.

In July, Mathew gave the school the go-ahead to operate for another semester while the lawsuit made its way through court. But the charter revocation already had taken a toll, Connections Academy officials said.

The online school, which opened in 2013, now serves about 1,000 students, down from about 2,000 in 33 counties who were enrolled in the last school year.

Lawyers for the academy told Mathew during a September hearing that the commission and the education department had made several missteps in rejecting the school’s charter.

Among other slip-ups, attorney Susan Fox said, the education department only used one standard — the school’s state grade — as a performance measure, violating the school’s contract with the state.

In addition, Fox said, the department failed to decide the matter by a 60-day deadline following the school’s appeal of the closure order.

The Public Education Commission sent a letter to Connections Academy in January listing reasons for the nonrenewal, Fox said, but those were not aligned with the reasons cited at a public commission meeting in December — a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Attorney Dawn Mastalir, representing the Public Education Department, argued that “at the heart and center of this case is the educational welfare of the students.” Connections Academy was failing to ensure its students were proficient, she said.

She also argued that the department should be given some latitude in deciding which quality standards apply to charter schools.

But she failed to sway Mathew, who, in his three-page ruling dated Sept. 28 called the education department’s decision “arbitrary, capricious and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

Patrica Gipson, chairwoman of the Public Education Commission, said Thursday the panel “stands by the decision that we made” to revoke the academy’s closure.

Mathew’s ruling doesn’t specify how long Connections is allowed to operate under a renewed charter, she said, “so that will have to be dealt with by the education department’s legal division.”

Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski blasted Mathew’s ruling in an email Thursday, saying the judge did not “seem compelled by this school’s overall failure to deliver a high-quality education to our students.”

The department “will not be deterred” by the ruling, Ruszkowski said, adding that “it is unacceptable for this school, or any school, to remain open indefinitely with this type of track record of chronic under-performance.”

The Public Education Commission was scheduled to meet Friday morning to discuss possible action on the issue.

Two other online charter schools operate in New Mexico. The Pecos Connections Academy in the Carlsbad school district, like the local academy, is part of Connections Education LLC, a private national education company. The New Mexico Virtual Academy, chartered by the Farmington school district, contracts with Virginia-based K-12, another private online learning firm.

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