Summit STEM charter school proposal fails

Summit STEM School supporters anxiously await the School Board's vote on the proposal, which came around 10:45 p.m. Tuesday. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Summit STEM School supporters anxiously await the school board’s vote on the proposal, which came around 10:45 p.m. Tuesday. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

After three hours of testimony and discussion, the Juneau School Board on Tuesday night rejected a proposal to start a STEM charter elementary school in the district.

When the Summit STEM School was first proposed to the board in August, organizers said it would be located in four classrooms within an existing Mendenhall Valley elementary school, but didn’t specify which one. On Tuesday night, Superintendent Mark Miller said, if approved, it would be located at Riverbend Elementary School.

That school’s principal Michelle Byer says she was informed of this on Oct. 8 and was concerned about negative impacts to her school. Her testimony came amid other comments from Riverbend parents.

“You have heard the concerns from our community – the Riverbend community – fear of losing staff, having splits across all grades. Should this happen, parents who can have already told me that they would look for a different school,” Byer said. “These are some of the concerns, but the question is this: If this is good for some children, why not for all? We had a number of open positions this last year and would’ve embraced these great ideas. We would love to be a magnet school and serve an entire population.”

Retired principal of Juneau-Douglas High School Sasha Soboleff testified in favor of the Summit STEM School as a charter school.

“I’m here to support the effort of recognizing that there are children in our school district today who fail, not because you’re not good teachers, but they fail because you haven’t recognized their unique skill set of learning for which charter schools generally do very, very well in because they are very specifically driven to recognize that skill set,” Soboleff said.

During board discussion, Vice President Andi Story said she’d rather see STEM touch more students’ lives through a magnet school. She spoke against approving the charter proposal.

“When we’re going to have the 80 students go to another program, those students are not in our general operating fund anymore, and so we’re going to have to lose some services if we don’t plan for more money at some of the neighborhood schools,” Story said.

New school board member Josh Keaton supported the STEM school. He said he’d rather start with the current proposal than wait for the perfect proposal for a magnet school.

“I have high hopes and I firmly believe that by voting yes to this proposal we are beginning the implementation of STEM education throughout Juneau, not just the charter school. We are taking that stepping stone to start the process so we can implement it throughout the district,” Keaton said.

Keaton and fellow new board member Emil Mackey were the only yes votes in favor of the charter school. At a candidate debate in September, Mackey had said he did not support it.

The motion to approve the Summit STEM School failed 5-2.

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