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Local school, sponsor can’t reach deal

A.B. Graham Academy serves nearly 300 Champaign students.

The fate of A.B. Graham Academy and its 280 students in St. Paris is uncertain after its board and its sponsor’s board, Graham Local Schools, could not agree on a new contract.

The academy was created in 2009, and the school’s sponsorship with Graham Local ends June 30. Graham Local’s board voted to not renew its agreement with the academy last week.

“This school started here; we wanted it to remain here. For me I’m from this community, it was community pride. They have made it clear they want that relationship severed,” A.B. Graham Academy Board President Leigh Anne Roberts said.

Negotiations on a new contract started in April between the two parties.

Graham Local’s administrative staff shared the building the academy uses. The administrative staff moved out, and the district wanted to start charging the academy rent last June.

The current contract said the academy could use the space for free.

Graham Local also now has the ability to get rid of and select the academy’s board members, but A.B. Graham Academy wanted to change that.

Academy board member Sean O’Connor said the board proposed a compromise: It would lease the building, if Graham Local surrendered that control.

“They said sign the lease and then talk about the other thing,” O’Connor said.

That is when the academy board started worrying about the partnership.

“What’s the point of signing a lease if we are not going to be in the school?” Roberts said.

The academy’s board has not signed a lease for the building and is using Graham Local’s building rent-free this year, but agreed to pay all the utilities.

In Graham Local’s proposal for a new sponsorship agreement, Superintendent Norm Glismann noted three non-negotiable items: Graham Local has to have the ability to approve board members, approve the director of the school and get a lease or purchase agreement.

Glismann said in order to put Graham Local’s name on the sponsorship, “we need some institutional control.”

The academy sent the agreement to the Ohio Department of Education, arguing that Graham Local wanted too much control and didn’t give enough “operational independence.”

ODE agreed and explained in a letter to Glismann that, if the academy had signed the proposal from Graham Local, it would have lost state funding.

“The proposed corporate structure obliterated the separation between the sponsor and the community school. As such, the department could not certify the community school was legally entitled to funding because it was operating in a manner outside the law,” ODE’s chief legal counsel said.

Graham Local’s attorney responded to ODE, stating that the academy’s funding would not be cut under the proposed agreement. That letter said the current and proposed deals “are in compliance with the decision by the Ohio Attorney General and Ohio Ethics Commission regarding ‘operational independence.’ ”

Glismann said he did not know why ODE said the academy would lose its funding if it signed the new agreement.

An ODE official said Friday that it stands by its original letter.

The academy is still able to appeal Graham Local’s decision to not renew.

The academy is exploring options for having a new sponsor for next year.

“With the number of other sponsors we’ve discussed, I think there is a fantastic chance that this time next year we will be as successful with another sponsor,” O’Connor said.

The school would most likely have to change locations and would lose services it gets from Graham Local, such as transportation and extra-curricular opportunities.

If an agreement is not reached, Glismann said Graham Local would create a school that operates similar to A.B. Graham Academy in its place.

“We have the teachers who are experienced, we have the space, and we believe we can do it,” Glismann said.

The academy has 140 of its 280 students who come from the Graham Local district. The academy incorporates a curriculum that includes online and in-class activities to help fit each individual student’s needs.

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