OKLAHOMA CITY — Thanks to financial struggles, an Indigenous-focused charter school may be merging with another charter school in order to keep its doors open come fall.
At the May 28 Oklahoma Board of Education meeting, representatives from the Sovereign Community School and Santa Fe South Charter School confirmed that they were in talks to potentially merge.
With a curriculum emphasizing Indigenous culture and traditions, Sovereign Charter School started classes in August. It had to delay the start of its inaugural school year after its original campus site did not pass mandatory building inspections, thus prompting a scramble to find a new location and unexpected additional expenses.
Organizers were eventually able to lease the former home of Justice Alma Wilson SeeWorth Academy, a now shuttered charter school targeting at-risk Oklahoma City students. However, the uncertainty about the status of the school’s campus caused enrollment to plummet to about 40 students. Although those figures have since rebounded, many of the new students were not added until after Oct. 1, which is the date used to calculate enrollment-based state aid.
School officials began fundraising and reaching out to potential donors in January. However, those efforts were hampered by the March onset of COVID-19.
“With our debt right now, we would not be able to stay open with 160 students,” Sovereign Community School Superintendent Matt Wilson said. “Our debt load is about $200,000.”
Under the draft proposal from the two schools, Santa Fe South would assume the lease on Sovereign Community School’s facility, as well as the debt. Sovereign Community School’s teachers would be considered Santa Fe South employees. Sovereign Community School’s board of directors would be in an advisory capacity only that would continue to fundraise to repay the debt and put the charter school in a financial position to re-launch in the future.
“It is possible that they (Sovereign Community School) would want to remain part of Santa Fe South after all of this, but that’s not the plan as of right now,” Santa Fe South Superintendent Chris Brewster said.
However, there are questions over whether such an arrangement is even legally allowable, prompting the board to table the matter.
Oklahoma’s charter school law requires charter schools to have a sponsor. Should a charter school be unable to get a school district, university or tribe to sign on in that role, the state Board of Education can do so, as it did in 2018 for Sovereign Charter School after Oklahoma City Public Schools rejected it twice. OKCPS is the sponsor for Santa Fe South.
Although school board attorneys noted that there is precedent for a merger between two charter schools with the same sponsor, there is not one for two charters with two different sponsors.
“Santa Fe South exists because it has a sponsor, which is Oklahoma City Public Schools,” state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said. “Sovereign Community School went to Oklahoma City Public Schools to be their sponsor and they were told no.
“This is a rickety structure when all that has to happen for it to fall apart is Oklahoma City Public Schools to say they end their sponsorship of Santa Fe South. That is a scenario that has to be contemplated and worked through.”