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Madrone Trail in turmoil

The Waldorf-based Madrone Trail Public Charter School is racing to address “grave concerns” raised by the Medford School District before its charter expires at the end of the school year.

Madrone Trail received a 60-day notice from Medford’s Chief Academic Officer Michelle Cummings in March stating that the district is considering terminating its sponsorship of the school for noncompliance with the terms of its existing charter, and by extension, state statute.

“Recent turmoil at the school has revealed grave concerns about Madrone Trail’s sustainability as a charter school,” Cummings’ letter read. “The Medford School District has significant concerns about renewing the charter.”

Monica Rathjen, newly appointed president of the Madrone Trail School Board, said the school is working toward meeting the district’s requirements.

“I’m confident we’ll be able to continue to move forward in collaboration with the Medford School District,” she said.

Opened in 2007, Madrone Trail is the oldest of Medford’s charter schools. Its current five-year charter is set to expire in June. The Medford School Board earlier this year had raised concerns about the school’s academic performance, finances and governance, but voted to renew the charter at its Feb. 26 meeting — provided Madrone Trail drafted an improvement plan.

Now, the stipulated improvement plan that Medford and Madrone Trail officials planned to negotiate is on hold, as Medford says the Madrone Trail School Board needs to accrue members for the school to satisfy its current charter.

“If they do not have a governing body that meets the terms of its charter and Oregon ethics practices, we cannot negotiate a new contract,” Cummings said.

Madrone Trail’s bylaws state that it must have no fewer than five members on its board, which Rathjen confirmed it has. Three of those members, however, are also Madrone Trail teachers; the position of the Oregon School Boards Association and other legal counsel discourages the practice of teachers serving on charter school boards. Teachers would have to abstain from voting on matters that would present conflicts of interest.

One potential example relevant to this year’s budget discussion is whether the school will continue its practice of yearlong paid teacher sabbaticals. Medford recommended a revision of that practice, but the possibility of sabbaticals being rescinded didn’t seem to go over well with the school community, according to meeting minutes.

If those three teachers were to recuse themselves in such a vote, the board would have only two voting members — which wouldn’t be enough for a majority.

“They need to have at least five members without conflicts,” Cummings said.

Rathjen said the board will interview three potential new board members at its next meeting, which will begin at 5 p.m. April 11 at the school, 3070 Ross Lane, Central Point.

Three non-teacher board members resigned in March, which resulted in the imbalance. Brenda Stein had been president, Michelle Gury had been vice president and John Briggs had been on the school charter renewal committee.

“I didn’t want to be involved with the tough negotiation with the district and the internal conflict,” Briggs said. “I felt it was best to step aside.”

Gury and Stein did not return calls for comment.

School director Karen Bailey is also on her way out, she announced at the end of March. She’ll leave after her contract expires at the end of June.

“I really enjoy the children here, and these are really good people to work with,” she said. But, she said, “It’s time. Time to go somewhere else.”

The board will now need to look for its next school director as it also juggles the charter renewal.

Madrone Trail and Medford’s school improvement plan likely will address a number of other issues. One lingering sticking point from years prior is academic performance and improvement, as well as overall participation in state assessments.

The school improved its scores in math and science between the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, but English language arts scores declined. State report cards show the school’s scores remain well below Oregon and like-school averages.

Participation improved, with the 57 opt-outs from state assessments dropping to 24 percent in the last school year.

Madrone Trail uses Waldorf teaching methods, which focus less on test results and emphasize holistic education through art, movement and individual learning styles. Staff and parents have said that lower performance and participation rates on state assessments in early grades is usually overshadowed as Waldorf students grow older and begin to outshine their peers by the end of middle school.

Last year, the Medford School Board warned leadership to find ways to bring up what one member called “abysmal” scores and participation rates, which Bailey said was a focus in the last year.

Rathjen said the school is aware of the need to improve its scores.

“I feel confident that those issues are noticed and are being addressed,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Fil photo / Mail Tribune Madrone Trail Public Charter School students play outside in this 2017 photo. The school is struggling to meet charter requirements before its contract is up for renewal with the Medford School District at the end of the school year.