There's really no reason for anyone to know that Holsteiner Agricultural School, a charter school in Maricopa, exists, except for the families it serves. It's a tiny school, 50 to 60 students max, and it appeared from the outside to be completely unexceptional until Diane Douglas added it to her erase-and-replace AIMS cheating list
cheating list, I should say, though the evidence against this and the other seven schools is pretty damning. I began hunting around the web to see what I could find out about Holsteiner charter, and what I found led me to look for more, then more, all of which led me to ask a number of questions I can't answer.
First the [possible] cheating story
. Holsteiner Agricultural School's state grade made an almost unbelievable jump from a "D" in 2013 to an "A" in 2014. It turns out, the jump very likely shouldn't be believed. On the 2014 tests, an unlikely number of wrong answers were changed to right answers.
"(S)tudents in the fourth grade corrected their responses to the right answer 83 percent of the time in reading and 85 percent of the time in mathematics," a letter from the Education Department states.
The school superintendent's answer to the cheating allegation raised a huge red flag for me.
Holsteiner Superintendent Tanya Graysmark, however, told The Arizona Republic in an e-mail Friday that her school has done nothing wrong.
"We worked with our students all year on best test practices (to go back and check their answers and make any necessary changes to their test — to do the best they can) prior to turning it in," she said. "This may have caused a lot of erasure marks," she wrote.
Graysmark should have said, "I'll look into it," instead of denying there was any wrongdoing and suggesting that the school's eagle-eyed fourth graders made mistakes on their first pass through the test, then went back, found the mistakes and came up with the right answer over 80 percent of the time.
I decided, if Graysmark would make a comment that questionable and self serving, she and the school deserved a closer look. Here's what I found.
Let's begin with the school building. Here it is on Google Maps.
Holsteiner Agricultural School is in the Maricopa Business Center, a garden variety strip mall. And the sign isn't for Holsteiner Agricultural School. It says Graysmark Academy. The reason is, Graysmark Academy is a private, for-profit preschool owned by the same Tanya Graysmark who is the director of Holsteiner charter. Both schools operate out of the same building.
So, the storefront in the Maricopa Business Center houses both a private, for-profit preschool, which charges from $3,860 to $4,720 per year for a child who comes five days a week, and a publicly funded K-6, nonprofit charter school. Tanya Graysmark is both director and teacher of the preschool as well as the director of the charter.
The charter school has three board members, Tanya Graysmark, Charles Graysmark and Anita Romero. Romero is one of the three teachers at the Graysmark Academy preschool.
Along with being both director and teacher at Graysmark Academy preschool, Tanya Graysmark makes a $118,000 salary at Holsteiner charter where she works an average of 50 hours a week, according to the school's tax form. It may be possible that Graysmark can put in 50 hours each week at the charter school and still be director and teacher at the for-profit preschool, but it's also possible that's stretching things a bit.
Holsteiner charter school is a nonprofit paid for with taxpayer money, which makes it a separate entity from the private, for-profit preschool. Holsteiner charter pays rent for its portion of the facility housing them both, of course. According to the tax form, that comes to $123,000 a year. I admit I don't know what a storefront rents for, so it may be that $10,255 a month is a reasonable price for a portion of the space it shares with the preschool. On top of rent , the charter school's office expenses are listed as $100,000.
The charter received $590,000 in combined state and federal funds for its 2013-2014 school year. That comes to almost $10,000 for each of its 60 students. The state portion is about $430,000, which would give the school a more standard $7,200 per student. The added $160,000 is from the federal government.
In its first school year, 2011-2012, when it had a total of 43 students, the charter received $285,000 from the state and $226,000 from the federal government. Adding in a few extra dollars here and there, the school had a total budget of $528,000, or $12,300 per student. During the 2012-2013 school year, it received about $200,000 from the federal government .
It looks like some teachers may work at both the private preschool and the publicly funded charter, though that's not entirely clear from their websites. Graysmark lists three teachers on its website: Director Tanya Graysmark, Anita Romero (who is the on the Holsteiner charter board) and someone referred to simply as Miss Bernie. The Holsteiner charter teacher page is blank. Anita Romero says about herself, "I am the assistant director and an elementary teacher here at Graysmark Academy." Since Graysmark only goes up to pre-K, the only way she could be an elementary school teacher is by also teaching at the K-6 charter. Miss Bernie says about herself, "I have had the opportunity to work in the classrooms with our preschool students and work one on one with our preschoolers and our elementary students."
All this information confirms for me the length and depth of my ignorance when it comes to charter school matters, especially the confounding issue of charter finances, leaving me with a list of unanswered questions. So let me add my questions to the one Diane Douglas asked, which was: Did Holsteiner charter come by its amazing jump in AIMS scores legitimately, or was there some kind of cheating involved?
Here are my questions.
1. Does Tonya Graysmark keep the finances of her two schools housed in the same building, the private, for-profit preschool and the publicly funded, nonprofit charter school, scrupulously separate?
2. Does Tanya Graysmark put in a 50 hour week, as is stated on the tax form, to earn her $118,000 salary at Holsteiner charter, on top of her jobs as director and teacher at Graysmark preschool?
3. Is $123,000 a legitimate yearly rent for part of a storefront in the Maricopa Business Center?
4. How does Holsteiner charter, with under 60 students, spend $100,000 on office expenses?
5. Why did a school with 43 students its first year, 2011-2012, get $226,000 from the federal government on top of its normal $285,000 allocation from the state?
6. Why did Holsteiner charter continue to receive extra federal funding its next two years—approximately $200,000 and $160,000?
Maybe the State Board of Charter Schools has good, reasonable answers to my questions. Or maybe not, in which case the state should be looking at more than the test scores at Holsteiner Agricultural Charter School.