Dollar difficulties stifle potential of Nevada charter schools

Karen Gray

LAS VEGAS — As the new school year begins, two more Nevada start-up charter schools — Nevada Performance Academy and Leadership Academy of Nevada — are delaying opening their doors.

They’ve run into what Elissa Wahl, vice chair of the State Public Charter School Authority, says is the biggest problem for Nevada’s start-up charter schools: money.

“$50,000 sounds like a lot of money,” she says, referring to the plight of Leadership Academy, which started with a $50,000 contribution.

“But, it’s not when you’re talking about pre-opening requirements.”

Nevada Journal first reported on the financial obstacles plaguing start-up charter schools this past May in a story about New America School-Las Vegas — which is trying to fill an important hole in Nevada public schooling.

At the same time that both the State of Nevada and the Clark County School District are shifting resources away from high-school students in need of English-language interventions, New America School-Las Vegas is attempting to fill that gap.

But when the school’s governing board last year was unable to raise the school’s startup expenses, it had to postpone the opening last fall. Now, even though money has been pledged, it arrived too late for this school year. Consequently, the opening of the school’s doors remains delayed until fall 2014.

Moreover, unless more Nevadans come forward with support, says the parent school in Colorado, the Las Vegas campus may never open.

Start-up expenses for a NAS charter school in Nevada are estimated at around $300,000. The costs include:

  • The school facility — leasing, inspection and renovation;
  • The staff — principal/headmaster, teachers and clerical;
  • The equipment — textbooks, desks and technical equipment; and
  • Operational incidentals — web presence, liability insurance and utility deposits.

Such costs are incurred long before any public per-pupil funding dollars arrive at a school.

Consequently, with no state or federal funding to help cover initial costs, New America School and other new charters must seek investment from private donors and corporations. That can be a daunting task, says Wahl, since Nevada has no mechanism to help schools and prospective donors learn about each other.  

“Businesses know where to go for the public schools,” says Wahl. “They don’t know where to go for other options. It is an awareness issue.” 

While Nevada’s corporations and businesses are committed to education, she says, they’re currently unaware of all the various options available for their investment. 

Another challenge, she says, is that too many Nevadans don’t understand charters.

“This community,” wrote Wahl in a recent press release, “really needs to understand charter schools, where we are trying to go with them here in Nevada, the great potential for change and the need for help!”

Speaking to Nevada Journal, she said that the state is well positioned to achieve genuine success with its charters.

“We’re able to take lessons from other states which have had things go wrong,” she said. “We’ve got our framework in place to acknowledge [schools] which are not doing well — and in a timely manner.”

Having adopted measures specifying how charters should operate, the state now has means with which to shut down charters if they’re not meeting their goals.

However, warns Wahl, even with all the gains Nevada has made with charter schools in recent years, the state will not see a change in the educational options available to people if the few schools now being approved can’t get opened.

“What Nevada needs now,” says Wahl, “are for some large donors to come out of the woodwork and say, ‘we want other educational options — point us to some quality new ideas.’”

Such relationships could breathe new life and innovation into Nevada public education.

Just weeks after its August do-or-die fundraising deadline, the New America School in Las Vegas clings to one such lifeline.

Javier Trujillo, vice president of the NAS-LV governing board, last month told fellow board members that a Nevada corporation, not as yet identified, has committed to coming on as a sponsor.

“What that could lead to,” said Trujillo — while noting that details of the commitment were still being refined — is that even “if we don’t get the full amount … we could [attract] other groups … that we have spoken to in the past that have mentioned matching dollars.”

Although the sponsorship details are still in development, renewed optimism on the board has it talking about building sites rather than closing doors. 

“We are halfway there,” Larry Mason, president of the Las Vegas NAS governing board and former Clark County School District school board trustee, told Nevada Journal. “This is evolving into something the community can be proud of.”

However, Dominic DiFelice, the New America School system’s superintendent in Denver, cautions that the Las Vegas school has really come to a crunch time.

“We’re down to what we’ll call the 11:59 hour,” said DiFelice in an interview earlier this week. “It’s not even the eleventh hour — we’re going beyond the eleventh hour of whether we’re going to open or not.”

While the school does have a commitment, the funds have yet to come through.  And given the timeline to locate, retrofit and get the necessary government approvals for a building before a 2014 opening, DiFelice says if the community support hasn’t arrived by the governing board’s next meeting, at the end of September, “we’re not going to be able to open.”

Once the Las Vegas campus gets off the ground, said DiFelice, “I think by year two or three, we would have enough kids in there to be self-sufficient.”

Karen Gray is a reporter/researcher with Nevada Journal. For more in-depth reporting visit and

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