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Power Struggle Is Played Out in Arena of Minn. Charter School

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One of Minnesota's first charter schools has been embroiled in a controversy over its philosophy and governance, prompting several board members to resign and some parents to remove their children.

The episode involving the New Heights Charter School in Stillwater, Minn., shows that while the charter concept is supposed to free schools from bureaucracy and burdensome state regulations, it does not exempt them from conflicts over power and social issues.

Principal Dick Houde said the 196-student school has an outcomes-based philosophy, using alternative teaching methods to help at-risk children meet specific educational outcomes.

He said the small group of parents that left the school during its first semester had philosophical differences over how it should be run.

"When you are bringing together a whole new program, you are going to have some conflicts,'' he said.

Twenty students have left since the first semester, but only 12 to 15 of the departures were related to the conflict, he said.

Power Struggle Seen

Mr. Houde said some outspokenly Christian board members gave other parents the impression that the school would have a religious focus. The state law authorizes only nonsectarian charter schools.

A parent who resigned from one of the school's two governing boards said no one ever promoted religious teaching in the school.

Instead, said Sue Andreghetti, the former board member, the Christian parents wanted a "value neutral'' school that did not promote themes they objected to in regular public schools, such as early sex education.

The real conflict was a power struggle between the two governing boards, Ms. Andreghetti maintained. One was a parents' board for the Stillwater campus, which came to be dominated by the group of vocally Christian parents. The other was a corporate panel that oversaw the New Heights School and a now-closed charter school in Minneapolis, which, Ms. Andreghetti said, is dominated by the school's full-time staff.

The conflict "was a great tragedy and a disappointment,'' she said. "I loved the teachers. Charter schools are a wonderful idea as long as you don't get this power struggle.''

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