Anchorage School District officials are recommending that the district take over a local charter school and transition it to a district alternative school because of leadership issues among its volunteer governing board that officials say have festered for years.
Many families and supporters of Family Partnership Charter School say dissolving the charter would change what they love most about the school, affecting their agency to make specific choices about their students’ education.
Family Partnership is a kindergarten through 12th grade public charter school that has roughly 1,700 enrolled students. The school supports families in homeschooling their children, allows students to take early college courses and online classes, and facilitates field trips as well as workshops with other homeschooled students.
Like all district charter schools, Family Partnership is governed by a body called the Academic Policy Committee, or APC. That governing board, according to a memo from the school district, has breached its charter, broken the law and “engaged in incessant infighting,” and its conduct is “unprofessional, unproductive and does not support the mission of the Family Partnership school.”
Anchorage Schools Superintendent Jharrett Bryantt notified school families about the district’s recommendation to dissolve the school’s charter last week. Bryantt said that the transition would have little impact on day-to-day aspects of Family Partnership. Teachers, staff and services would not change, he wrote.
The school district “is committed to ensuring the continued success of FPCS,” Bryantt told families. “We anticipate minimal changes for students, staff, and families.”
Some families dispute that characterization. At a March 20 school board meeting, parent Lale Anderson said that revoking the charter would undermine parents’ ability to influence their children’s education.
“I am confident that I do not speak for myself only when I say that FPCS forged a path that has allowed homeschooling families to provide outstanding educations for individual students, while providing invaluable teacher guidance and treasured community support,” Anderson said. “To destroy the charter of this school at this time after so many years of student success would be a travesty.”
The school’s families are given financial allotments, which they can use to pay for curriculum, tutors, technology and other needs. Those allotments won’t change under the district’s plan, Bryantt wrote.
In mid-February, school district officials wrote to the Academic Policy Committee that they were investigating the board’s conduct and considering several options, including probation and termination of its charter.
In the letter, the district outlined a recent slew of issues with the committee, including what the district characterized as the board’s interference with the principal’s hiring of teachers and staff, and a conflict-of-interest issue surrounding a committee member whose wife, a former teacher at the school, had sued the district as well as the school’s principal.
In a 34-page response, the committee wrote that it valued its relationship with ASD but disputed some of the district’s assertions, including arguing that actions around that hiring teachers and staff related to the budget and that no interference had taken place.
The group also committed to following board bylaws; creating a policy that members would need to review and receive training on its ethics code yearly; requiring new member training; contracting with the Alaska Association of School Boards to have more Robert’s Rules of Order training; and implementing both a self-evaluation and internal complaints and conflict resolution process.
Unsatisfied with the responses, the district has asked the Anchorage School Board to vote in favor of terminating Family Partnership’s charter and the district taking over operations. The board will vote on the proposal April 3.
“This action would remove the APC but otherwise leave Family Partnership in place to provide its homeschooling format to the families with students currently enrolled there and for families who plan to enroll students in the future,” district officials wrote in a memo to school board members.
In the detailed memo, the district outlined a series of recent and historic issues with the APC as evidence for district takeover and dissolution of the charter.
District administration wrote the Academic Policy Committee rarely discussed anything related to running the school and spent most of its time “prosecuting internal disputes.”
They wrote that after sending the February letter, the committee’s conduct didn’t improve.
“The Family Partnership APC has shown that it is fundamentally dysfunctional and that productive relationships between its membership is irretrievably broken,” officials wrote.
Officials wrote while it was hard to identify the root cause of the infighting, several members disagree about how the school’s principal operates Family Partnership.
The memo also included past issues with the committee, including that in the 2018-19 school year, an investigation found that due to lack of oversight, curriculum that “was religious in nature” was bought using public funds — a violation of state and federal law.
By 2021, the district was considering whether or not to recommend renewal of the school’s charter over concern that issues would worsen. Ultimately, the district recommended a five-year renewal, but school board members ended up renewing the charter for a maximum of 10 years.
“Since renewal of the Family Partnership’s charter, the APC’s conduct has worsened, and repeated breaches of its charter have continued,” the district wrote. “Members of the APC are currently engaged in incessant infighting about the proper role of the APC, the principal’s operation of the school, and whether other members violated various provisions of decorum, law, and policy.”
The district recommendations have drawn backlash from families and local conservative leaders. Anchorage Assembly candidate and school choice advocate Leigh Sloan wrote in a Facebook post last week that the school district’s recommendation “is wrong and clearly a grab for control.”
Josiah Tshibaka, the school’s student council president and son of Republican former U.S. House candidate Kelly Tshibaka and former Anchorage human resources director Niki Tshibaka, started a Change.org petition asking the superintendent to keep the charter in place.
If it is dissolved, “families will leave FPCS and seek alternative schooling options, within or outside of the ASD,” the petition says, arguing the committee “serves in FPCS’s system of checks and balances and is a critical component of maintaining our focus on a parent-driven and student-centered education.”
At a school board meeting on March 20, several testifiers laid out other concerns and some said they’d leave the district if the board votes to follow the administration’s recommendation.
Families said the unique school is the best fit for their students, and questioned the district’s approach to the issue. Officials sent a letter about the recommendation late in the afternoon of March 17, before board members were set to discuss the topic at a school board meeting just a few days later.
A teacher at the school, Teresa Hintze, testified that when the district recommended closing six elementary schools earlier this school year, district administration held several town halls and additional meetings.
“We need the help and support of ASD, not a punishment that will not resolve anything,” Hintze said. “FPCS has continued to serve their students and families through this trying time with the utmost professionalism and diligence. Our students are thriving. Please do not continue down this road without further research and information and without the opportunity for FPCS and their stakeholders to have a voice and to do better, which is what this veteran charter school of 25 years deserves.”
Several testifiers said they felt the recommendation to dissolve the charter was extreme.
“The solution seems so drastic,” Kirsten Marchant testified to the board. “Is there a way that we can problem solve and find a solution that can address the ASD’s frustrations while not penalizing parents by forcing our charter school into becoming an alternative school?”
‘This isn’t a school problem ... This is an APC problem’
A few testifiers, however, said they supported the district’s recommendation.
That included Shad Schoppert, a former APC chair and member who resigned from the board in September, and voiced support for the district’s proposed plan during public testimony.
In an interview, Schoppert said he agreed with the majority of parents who spoke about how good the school is, and that they don’t want it to change. He emphasized that the issues weren’t with the school, but the school’s governing committee.
“This isn’t a school problem — our school is great. It’s wonderful,” Schoppert said. “This is an APC problem. This is a governance problem. And that’s what I think is broke. And I don’t think it can be repaired.”
Heather DeBerry, a member on the committee since January and a teacher at the school for seven years, said she’s concerned about the district’s recommendation. The committee gives parents, teachers and students choices in how the school is run and governed, she said.
“Once that is dissolved, that no longer exists, and we are left with the only parent input is three minutes at a board meeting in actual control over what happens to their school, their students and all parts of their school choice,” DeBerry said.
Another committee member, James Wileman, who has been on the board for nearly a year, said he thought the school district’s recommendation would ensure students and staff are taken care of.
“(The district) made it clear they don’t want to change the way the school works for our students,” Wileman said. “Fantastic — let’s go that route.”
Other members of the current APC either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
At the school board meeting Monday, the Anchorage School District superintendent responded to several points brought up by testifiers. Bryantt said the recommendation would not impact “the very important thing that families have advocated for tonight, which is the freedom to make choices about their curriculum, and the structure of Family Partnership programming.”
He also responded to concerns that the district was attempting to take the school’s financial savings through the transition. Bryantt said the district had no interest in using the school’s funds for anything besides Family Partnership expenses and allotments.
“This is not about the funding. This is about multiple years of documented dysfunction on the part of the APC that needs to be remedied or at least be put on the record for a vote sooner rather than later to ensure that we mitigate future risks,” Bryantt said. “I want to make that clear. That’s not pleasant to hear, but it’s incumbent upon me to be very clear with the community that I am concerned.”
Bryantt said he “no reason to believe” that the various violations would cease.
“Unfortunately this situation has progressed to a rather urgent situation to where I felt that a decision needs to be made one way or another, sooner rather than later,” he said. “Because I do fear that unless something changes, there is future risk of breaches either to the charter, Family Partnership bylaws, state law or board policy.”