Kalispell Public Schools to Consider In-District Charter Schools

In a preliminary discussion on Tuesday night, school board trustees voiced support for public charter schools and agreed to consider applications later this month

By Denali Sagner
The entrance to the Kalispell Public Schools office in downtown Kalispell on Sept. 27, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) Board of Trustees will consider applications for one or more charter schools to be opened within the district at its Oct. 24 meeting. If approved by the board, the applications will head to the Montana Board of Public Education, where they will be approved or denied by early 2024.

At a Tuesday night school board meeting, district administrators presented a handful of loose proposals for the creation of new charter schools within KPS, including the creation of a “school within a school” at Glacier High School, or turning Linderman Education Center or the Agricultural Education Center into a charter school.

“We’ve been looking at a lot of different entities. The one you have there is Glacier High School, the possibility of having a ‘school within a school,’” KPS Assistant Superintendent Peter Fusaro said. “We’re talking about the [Linderman Education Center], and even the [Agricultural Education] Center has been brought up.”

If approved by the school board, charter school programs would be created under the framework of House Bill 549, one of two dueling charter school bills passed by the 2023 Montana Legislature. The bill authorized the establishment of charter schools under local school boards, keeping the administration of such schools within the bounds of existing public school districts. Charter schools established under House Bill 549 are required to comply with the Montana Constitution’s education requirements, including for teacher certification, health and safety guidelines and curriculum standards.

House Bill 562, the second charter school bill passed by the Legislature, would create “community choice schools” that are governed by a state commission rather than local school boards, and are not bound by the Montana Constitution’s education standards. The bill is currently being challenged in court, and the Community Choice Schools Commission is presently barred from authorizing the establishment of any new charter schools. The Kalispell trustees on Tuesday did not discuss “community choice schools” or House Bill 562.

KPS administrators and school board trustees on Tuesday said that the creation of in-district charter schools would allow the district to offer more flexibility for students and would help plug financial holes in the wake of a number of levy failures. If pre-existing programs were converted to charter schools, administrators said the district would be able to bring in additional funding while utilizing existing buildings, staff and supplies. Newly established charter schools receive a financial allocation from the state, which could pay for programs that are currently coming out of the district’s limited general fund. 

“Looking at the levy failures last week, we’re kind of like, ‘Hey, how can we increase funding through our schools?’” Flathead High School Principal Michele Paine said.

“We need to levy our community for the remainder of [our funding]. We do not get that money,” Trustee Jinnifer Mariman said. “This is a way to expand the pie when we don’t have a community to support it.”

Some trustees raised questions about the benefits of opening public charter schools within KPS, given that many of the district’s specialized programs have already seen considerable success. The conversation between trustees and administrators repeatedly circled back to the funding that charter schools would bring in, especially in light of shrinking funding sources.

Administrators also said that the charter school formula would help build on the district’s transformational learning initiative, which has bolstered the hands-on, work-based educational opportunities available to students.

“This is the direction we need to move in, and it’s exciting,” Sue Corrigan, a Kalispell school board trustee and the vice president of the Montana School Boards Association Board of Directors, said. “We want to be leaders in this, so I fully support moving forward with one, two or more charter schools.”

The school board will consider one or more applications for charter schools within KPS at its Oct. 24 meeting. If approved by the board, applications will be submitted to the Montana Board of Public Education, which will consider the proposals and issue approvals in January 2024.