New Mexico Attorney General's Office is investigating agreement between online charter school and for-profit education company

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FARMINGTON — The Farmington school board voted today to deny reauthorizing the charter for New Mexico Virtual Academy and opted to close the school at the end of the school year due to low student performance.

The decision comes a day after New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas sent a letter to the Farmington Municipal School District Board of Education stating his office is investigating the company that provides curriculum and educational services for the online charter school.

New Mexico Virtual Academy opened in August 2012 after the Farmington school board approved its charter application in September 2011. It has an enrollment cap of 500 students in sixth through 12th grade.

In June, the academy's Governing Council approved an updated educational products and services agreement with K12 Inc., a for-profit company based in Virginia.

Balderas' office is reviewing K12 Inc.’s activities in New Mexico after the company and the California Attorney General reached a multi-million dollar settlement, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Daily Times.

"The agreement resolved allegations that K12 Inc. had engaged in false advertising, false claims, and unfair competition,” the letter states. As part of the settlement, K12 Inc. was required to pay $160 million to the schools it managed and another $8.5 million to resolve the claims, the letter states.

Balderas states in the letter that the allegations in California raise serious concerns about the company’s practices and its effect on New Mexico students.

The decision to close the online charter school raised concern from members of the Governing Council who attended the special board meeting today.

Council President Cory Lee said the decision was disappointing and he was concerned about students' future.

"Their vote just displaced 500 students and 17 faculty members," Lee said after the meeting. "It’s disheartening they would do that to those students."

After the meeting, Superintendent Gene Schmidt said he did not have faith in the strategic plan the academy's officials proposed to improve school performance.

"There was nothing strategic in what was presented today that I think answered our questions," Schmidt said after the meeting.

Schmidt also said administrators will help affected students transition to other schools.

During the meeting, board members brought up several concerns about New Mexico Virtual Academy, including its graduation rate, students' math and reading proficiency levels and the school's lack of a certified procurement officer.

The online charter school had a graduation rate of 38.56 percent in 2014-2015, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department. The percentage of students who were proficient in math was 11.8 percent in 2015-2016 and 29.6 percent were proficient in reading, according to the state education department.

Charter school officials took turns during today's meeting to brief the Farmington board on their plan to improve student achievement. They said that in recent years, the academy has seen changes in the students who enroll in the school and that has affected performance.

High school science teacher Claire Smith said in her presentation that said 98 percent of new enrolled students over the last two years needed credit recovery help to retake classes they failed in the past.

Staff were in the process of implementing new credit recovery courses to address the issue and had introduced support programs to help students.

One students spoke during the meeting in support of the school, saying it has had a positive impact on her life.

Sixteen-year-old junior Jordan Patterson woke up at 4 a.m. today to drive six hours from her home in Capitan to attend the meeting. While the academy is based in Farmington, students statewide can enroll in online classes.

"I’m disappointed, but I’m optimistic that things will turn around," Patterson said after the meeting. "This school has helped me immensely in many areas that I struggled in before. I think that my teachers are amazing, they’ve always been there for me."

Lee declined to comment on how the academy's Governing Council plans to respond to the board's decision to close the school.

School staff and council members must submit a plan by Jan. 12 to the school board on how they will notify parents and students about the school closure and how they will help students transition to other schools.

Balderas' letter to the Farmington board asks the board to submit several documents related to New Mexico Virtual Academy by Jan. 17. Those documents include all school policies, procedures, financial audits and reports, and all materials and documents submitted regarding the authorization or renewal of the school’s charter.

Kyle Rhodes, president of the Farmington school board, said he briefly looked at the letter but has not had a chance to discuss it with the board. But, he said, the board will comply with the letter in a timely manner.

Lee said during the special board meeting that he had not received a copy of the letter.

This was not the first time the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office has shown interest in the agreement between New Mexico Virtual Academy and K12. Inc.

Former Attorney General Gary King released a formal opinion in April 2014 stating the agreement violated the New Mexico Charter Schools Act, which prohibits a for-profit company from operating a charter school, according to Daily Times archives.

Larry Palmer, who was the Governing Council's president at the time, told The Daily Times in 2014 that the AG's opinion was probably based on a former version of the agreement.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.

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