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Duluth Edison ready to operate on its own

The international for-profit company that manages Edison's North Star and Raleigh academies plans to breakup. Local school leaders want to take over managing the two schools. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Raleigh Academy in West Duluth. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Duluth Edison Charter Schools plans to split from the for-profit company that has helped manage the schools for nearly 20 years.

Beginning in the summer of 2017, the schools will be led independently but will retain the Edison name. It will happen the same year the recently approved new high school is slated to open.

Edison has been a "great partner," said Bonnie Jorgenson, head of Duluth Edison schools. But the company — now known as EdisonLearning — has changed, and school management is now just a small part of what it does.

"As a school, we've really matured in our business operations," she said. "We are really at a place now where we are able to self-manage, and Edison is in agreement with that."

EdisonLearning's part in the Duluth charter schools has involved giving financial and human resources services, professional development for teachers and technology assistance.

EdisonLearning, known as the Edison Project when the partnership began, has offered services to the Duluth charter schools since 1997. Based in Knoxville, Tenn., the company, once also known as Edison Schools, has mostly transitioned from managing schools to offering alternative and online education. It's gone from managing more than 60 a decade ago to now just a handful.

"The vast majority of our business today is no longer in charter schools," said Michael Serpe, EdisonLearning communications director.

Part of the reason for that is because of a reduction in education funding throughout the country, and part is because the partnership was meant to help school leaders learn to operate on their own, he said, noting the relationship with Duluth schools has been unusually long.

"In all honesty, they have had the capacity to do this for quite a while," Serpe said, based on the leadership within the schools. "When our relationship officially concludes, we will always keep that as a major case study, as really the way to do it."

The move would mean more money would stay in Duluth; the fee paid to EdisonLearning this year was just over $600,000. While new employees would need to be hired — for technology, human resources, business and school programming — about $200,000 a year would remain to pay for other school expenses, Jorgenson said.

"We will gain more control of how to spend the money we've been paying to them," she said.

The partnership with a for-profit company is a rarity in Minnesota, where most charter schools are independently managed, said Cindy Murphy, charter center director for the Minnesota Department of Education.

State law says nothing about charter schools working with management companies, but is clear on conflict of interest, she said.

Minnesota's charter law puts much responsibility and decision-making power on the school's board, which has members elected by parents and staff, for example. A management organization can't determine the composition of the board, or choose to not have one, which has deterred some from coming to the state, Murphy said.

Serpe said the growth and success of the Duluth Edison schools — referencing the building of North Star Academy off Rice Lake Road, plans for a high school and improved academic performance — comes from people in Duluth. But because companies such as EdisonLearning are for-profit, some "think it's our school. It's not our school; it's the community's school," he said.

As for keeping the name, the board saw no reason to change it, said Crystal Palmer, president of the 11-member board of directors.

"It's who we are," she said, and the name isn't solely associated with the management company.

Duluth Edison serves about 1,300 students via the K-8 North Star Academy and the K-5 Raleigh Academy in West Duluth. The new high school will be built near the North Star school.

• In other Duluth Edison news, the state education department is allowing the schools to keep an expansion grant of about $400,000 to help with expenses for the new high school. There was concern that moving the opening year from 2016 to 2017 would result in losing the money, but the state — acting on permission from the federal education department — has said the grant will remain with the school.

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