Rural Virtual Academy administrator Charlie Heckel briefs the Rhinelander school board on the virtual charter school Monday, May 20, 2019. The board ultimately voted to apply for a one-year affiliated membership with the Medford-based school.
5/23/2019 7:29:00 AM School board votes to affiliate with Rural Virtual Academy Trial membership will run during 2019-20 school year
With the 2018-19 school year winding down, the School District of Rhinelander Board of Education voted Monday to affiliate with the Rural Virtual Academy, an online charter school, on a trial basis.
The vote came after the board members heard a presentation from Charlie Heckel, the administrator of the Rural Virtual Academy.
Heckel told the board, 26 school districts have partnered with the Medford Area Public School District-based charter school to provide online learning.
"We're a school that serves about 1,000 full-time virtual school students throughout the state of Wisconsin. And we serve about another 3,000 that we called part-time enrolled students," Heckel said. "These are students in local school districts that are looking to take some online courses that they may not have the availability or option to be able to take. And we do so by being in a consortium with all these other schools."
The schools RVA partners with are located as far north as Ashland and as far south as Tomah, he said. Some have been involved since RVA was established in 2005.
Heckel said RVA has two types of partnership agreements it offers other school districts: single-year affiliate membership and multi-year invested membership, with each new district going through the affiliate process before it can sign on for multiple years.
What the RVA and the members do is enter into a shared service agreement with each other, he explained.
"But basically it's a low risk endeavor; it basically says that we agree to cooperate with the Medford School District and RVA to provide educational services to full-time enrolled students in the Rhinelander school district," Heckel said. "Those students no longer have to open enroll out from Rhinelander to Medford to gain access to that school. Then we can start building partnerships between the two, allowing kids to meet local graduation requirements, earning a local high school diploma, share some special education services, a lot of kids start playing local athletics again, those kinds of things."
A benefit to the member schools is that instead of losing all state aid for each student open enrolled into RVA, a per pupil cost is negotiated between RVA and those districts with memberships at an amount that is always lower then what the district would lose through full time open enrollment out, Heckel explained.
"We take $1,500 per pupil that you would otherwise be having to transfer automatically out in open enrollment, you get to keep that," Heckel said. "The upside of that agreement is you only pay as you go, you can kind of predict what your costs are going to be."
"And if you don't like it, it's a one-year deal," he added. "Once it's done, you don't have to sign another one."
On the flipside, if Rhinelander likes how the partnership works in the first year and decides to apply for invested membership, it can do so for up to five years, which is the length of time that the Medford Area Public School District renews the RVA's charter.
"Just about everyone wants to become an invested member," Heckel said. "They feel that the services are good."
Invested schools don't know going into any one school year how much their per pupil cost will be because all invested members share in the cost of the consortium, he added.
"But they also share in the revenue," Heckel said. "At the end of the year, whatever amount needs to be covered from their local state aid that they're collecting is paid to cover that cost. On average, the cost per pupil for invested members is about $3,000 for a full-time enrolled student."
In contrast, if a student open enrolls out of SDR, they take about $7,400 in state aid with them to the gaining school district.
"If that child is special needs, it's $12,000," Heckel said. "I think that the savings are pretty obvious to see over time and there is 15 years worth of data for you."
Heckel also gave the members of the board copies of RTV's 2017-18 annual report, which included testimonials from parents of RVA students, financial information and additional information about the school.
"We ask the parents and students in our school to rate every one of our teachers in the quality of instruction they're getting," Heckel said. "And you can certainly view the feedback that we get."
Board member David Holperin asked what would be the benefit to Rhinelander schools to partner with RVA versus going it alone in starting an online virtual charter school.
"Going it alone can reap you additional fiscal benefits, that's one of the bigger reasons you would do that, because you would be able to retain all of the potential open enrollment money. But you're also assuming a lot of risks," Heckel said. "Some programs that have went about it on their own at first are now partnering with us."
Heckel said there are 42 virtual charter schools in Wisconsin that can accept open enrollments.
"Once you slap on that virtual charter school label, you now have to adhere to a whole other set of statutes," he said. "Then you can start taking open enrollment from all over the state. That gets to be more complex and the risk goes up. Of the 42 in the state that are out there now, half of them are growing and half of them are going the other way."
He said the combined buying power of all the invested members together means that RVA can often get computers, technology, courses and other educational material at a cost lower than even CESA 9.
In addition, member districts have the option of sharing their own teachers with RVA who might not otherwise be full-time.
"We have five teachers in the consortium this year that we help their local districts by allowing them to teach to our students," he said.
School District of Rhinelander director of special education and pupil services Maggie Peterson said that if the board approved joining RVA, it would be another option for Rhinelander students in addition to those services offered through Hodag Connections.
"From a technical standpoint, we do not run a virtual charter school," Peterson told the board. "We use virtual school content to offer some blended learning options for some of our students through Hodag Connections program. That program has one teacher employed now and one teaching assistant."
She said it is anticipated that once the program relocates to the Brown Street site the district is leasing, another teacher and teaching assistant will be added, but the virtual content the program uses would come from RVA if the board approves membership.
"Remember, there are multiple programs that kind of run through that big umbrella," Peterson said, noting that while the virtual programming the district currently has access to through CESA 9 does not have an elementary level component, RVA does.
When the question of whether the district should enter into an affiliated membership was raised, Holperin noted that the board was just presented the information that night and asked to make a decision without any time to study the matter.
"I would have liked to have had more time to absorb the material," Holperin said. "In the future, I would prefer that we could get the material in one meeting and be asked to vote at least at the next meeting."
The board voted 8-0, with Mike Roberts absent, to enter into the one-year affiliated membership.
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at email@example.com.
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