By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Bauer saw Horizon's booming business and wanted a piece of the action for his own district, so he brought in the one2one Learning Foundation, an organization that began in the Southwest, then moved into California to sell software and manage a charter school. The school, which was named the Sierra Summit Academy, quickly became the brain center for an enrollment as high as 2,700 students throughout the state, dwarfing the parent school district, which has about 825 students. The school's specialty has been long-distance learning via computer, particularly for home-schoolers. For attendance accounting and advisement, the school uses a "facilitator" with a Ã£ teaching credential to make home visits, very much like the Horizon model.
Like Horizon, the Sierra Summit Academy itself has no actual school building. The education program for several thousand students has been coordinated out of a 19-by-29-foot wood-sided building in Sierra City, population 225, a Gold Country town that never quite reached critical mass. A sign advises slow driving because "children and dogs play in the street." Firewood sits stacked on the porch of the library. Nearby, the Buckhorn restaurant offers a "full-course dinner" on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 9 p.m. The North Yuba River gurgles in the background.
Even before snow season, Sierra City isn't easy to get to, but then, the school district originally barred its own students from attending. Sierra Summit was not a local school site, but rather an ATM. Fifteen percent of all the charter's revenue would go to Bauer's school district.
And Sierra-Plumas was well on its way to rosier times. Its budget ballooned from $5 million to more than $12 million, according to Bauer. Even though most of the gain went to one2one, Sierra-Plumas used its 15 percent of the $7 million increase to restore art and music programs, rehire custodians and launch plans for a $9 million construction program.
One2one also was flying high with Sierra Summit as well as two other charters it managed in other remote school systems. One2one reported revenue of about $13.3 million and assets of $4.1 million for the year ending June 30, 1999, the latest period for which state records are available. No public records detail exactly how the money was spent or what percentage of it actually went into direct services for students.
THE STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT IS NOT TO BE directly involved in the oversight of charter schools -- state legislators have made that clear -- but the rapid growth of Horizon and Sierra Summit invited scrutiny.
And when they looked, state education officials noticed that, in contrast to the goodies that Horizon offered students, regular classrooms in Western Placer Unified had to get by with a materials budget of about $80 per student, and families got no say in how that money would be spent.
In response, the Education Department first specified that Horizon only provide services that were potentially available to other students in the school district. Gaschler reluctantly cut out horseback riding, field trips and the small special-subject classes. Then, in February 1995, the state took a harder position. If Horizon provided computers to 10 students, the sponsoring school district would have to make home computers available to 30 students, because at that time, the district's enrollment was three times the size of Horizon's.
This directive was simply beyond the financial reach of Western Placer. Even worse for Horizon, the state applied this new condition retroactively -- to enrollment money already received and spent. The school system would be bankrupt if it had to return already-spent state money that had been used "inappropriately." The state then offered a deal that appeared to seal Horizon's fate: Shut down Horizon, and the state would not demand its money back. Under this tremendous pressure, the school district revoked Horizon's charter in March 1995.
But Gaschler was not without allies, including charter-school-friendly Republican lawmakers and a 500-strong army of parents who marched in protest to Sacramento. Gaschler won a stay of execution, which enabled his supporters to challenge the state's position that all Western Placer students had to receive equal resources.
Of course, uneven resources -- and unequal schools -- can be found all over the state. Since when did schools in Compton compare to those in Beverly Hills or San Marino? Citing various legal justifications, the state Attorney General's Office, headed by conservative Republican Dan Lungren, sided with Horizon in August 1995. The local school board restored Gaschler's charter, and he remained in business.
State officials, meanwhile, chastened by the experience, seemed reluctant to take on another charter school absent extraordinary circumstances. For the most part, future complaints were forwarded to the sponsoring district, which did not satisfy Nevada County Superintendent McAteer. McAteer has characterized himself as a proponent of site-based charter schools, but didn't like what he saw at Sierra Summit Academy, which he rechristened the "dialing for dollars" charter school in a letter to the state Education Department.
McAteer said it's no accident that one2one and the Sierra-Plumas school district found each other. For one2one, the isolated school district assured a lower level of outside scrutiny. And the added income from a charter school makes a huge difference in such a small school district, which would be loath to kill its cash cow. In addition, one2one got more money per student than it would have in many other school systems, because Sierra-Plumas has to provide an extensive transportation system across mountain roads for a small number of students. One2one's students got the same per-pupil funding, even though its students got to school by logging on. (In response to this issue, the state Legislature recently leveled out all charter-school funding.)