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Indy Q&A: New state charter school leader envisions better busing, facilities and pay

Rocio Hernandez
Rocio Hernandez
EducationK-12 Education

The newest executive director of the State Public Charter School Authority said she’s optimistic about new transportation options that will soon be available at charter schools thanks to a 2023 bill that allocated $14 million to provide busing, but is concerned that they don’t get equitable funding compared to their district counterparts. 

The State Public Charter School Authority is responsible for overseeing the schools it sponsors. Its new leader, Melissa Mackedon, was born and raised in Fallon and is bringing more than a decade of experience leading a successful rural charter school to bear on the funding problems that similar schools face.

Gov. Joe Lombardo appointed Melissa Mackedon to the position in October. She was previously the chief executive officer of Oasis Academy, a high-performing, K-12 public charter school with more than 750 students, which she helped found in Fallon in 2011. Mackedon started her new job in mid-November. 

Mackedon is replacing the former director, Rebecca Feiden, who left the role in September about four years after she was appointed by former Gov. Steve Sisolak to take a position with a national organization that works to develop new charter school leaders. 

Mackedon started her career in education in 1998 at a Utah school district and has since taught at California and Washoe County schools and Western Nevada College. 

Mackedon served as a member and chair of the State Public Charter School Authority board from 2011 until she resigned in June 2023. She’s served on the board for the Charter School Association of Nevada — a nonprofit organization that aims to support and expand the number of high-quality charter schools in the state — since 2012. 

She’s coming into the role after lawmakers appropriated $14 million to support transportation options at charter schools, marking the first time charter schools received state funding specifically for transportation. So far, the State Public Charter School Authority’s board has allocated about $4.4 million to 21 schools of the $7 million reserved for this academic year. Mackedon said with additional schools expected to apply soon, she anticipates all the money from this first round will be allocated. 

Yet, charter school educators felt snubbed when they were excluded from a 2023 bill, SB231, that created a $250 million matching fund to help provide raises for teachers and support staff at district schools. 

The Nevada Independent spoke with Mackedon on the state of Nevada charter schools and her vision for the future. 

This interview has been edited for length. 

Q: What made you interested in applying for the executive director position?

There are some policy type things that I think can be improved that will improve the landscape for charter schools, things having to do with amendment requests … when a charter school wants to move locations or they want to add a grade or add additional students. One of our goals is to make that process a little more streamlined and a little less cumbersome. There's also a lot of accountability over charter schools. Not only are they rated on the Nevada School Performance Framework, but (the State Public Charter School Authority has) an Academic Performance Framework we rate them on annually. There's a financial framework that we rate them on annually. We also conduct site visits. So there's a ton of oversight that goes on in charter schools, and we need to make some tweaks to that to make it more meaningful.

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing Nevada charter schools today? 

Inequitable funding. SB231 … excluded charter schools and their teachers from that money. They have all the same requirements that any other public school teacher had and they weren't eligible to have matching dollars for those raises. It felt deliberate and it felt wrong. That obviously puts charter schools at a major disadvantage, especially when they don't have access to facilities funding. Charter schools have to pay for their facilities out of their per pupil dollars. Additionally, they do not get equitable funding in special education. 

This year, the Legislature allocated $14 million for the next two years to fund charter school transportation. What impact is the funding having so far? 

I think getting this funding was really important because it was definitely an equity issue. If you didn't live within walking distance of a charter school or had a parent who could drop you off and pick you up, it was really hard to apply because how are you going to get to school every day? What we're hoping to see is that the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch will continue to rise in charter schools, so that we will be a closer match to the state's overall number. We absolutely think that we will utilize all of this funding and actually have more demand for it than we actually have funding available.

Do any of these schools already have transportation infrastructure up and running or is that still in the works?  

There's a few of them that are up and running. They're using third-party vendors to provide the service, which is awesome. 

In some states, even traditional public school districts don't run their own transportation departments. It's a third-party vendor who does that, and that's what you're starting to see happen in Clark County charter schools, these third-party vendors coming in and managing it for a fee, which just makes good sense, right? Let the school leader of a charter school be the instructional leader they are and let someone who's an expert in transportation and busing and logistics manage that process. So a lot of them are choosing to go that route. 

I know some of them are planning to kick off offering transportation after they get back from winter break. Some of them already are offering it. If they aren’t already, they will be by the end of the school year. That’s their goal. 

Where does this leave charter schools outside of Clark County? 

Well, really in Washoe County or say Churchill County or Elko, their only other option, really, is to either run their own services or get into an MOU [memorandum of understanding or contract] with the local school district. Local school districts are always eager to do that, for a variety of reasons, right? But they already are having a hard time staffing school bus drivers, for their own students and their own route. So really, outside of Clark County, those are your two choices: either get into an MOU with the local school districts, which is not necessarily always feasible for the reasons I just mentioned, or you have to provide them yourself. 

That's a much heavier lift, which is why I think the applications that we've seen have mainly been in Clark County.

Charter schools have been seen by some as adversaries to traditional district schools as they compete with each other for students and, at times, public funding. What can charter schools do to overcome this perception? 

I think the best thing we can do, frankly, is put our heads down and work hard to get outcomes for the students we're serving. I don't think that expending energy on adult political issues and battles is gonna move the needle for kids in traditional public schools, or public charter schools. 

The best thing that we can do as individual charter schools is, one, make sure that people understand we're free public schools that are open and all students are eligible regardless of disability, regardless of economic status, regardless of English language learner status. All students are eligible. Aside from that messaging, the best thing we can do to make our case is put our heads down and get to work and improve outcomes for students and our data bears that out. If you're an English language learner or a student on an IEP [an Individualized Education Program that’s developed for a student with disabilities who needs specialized education], you have a better chance of making growth at a charter school in Nevada than if you're sitting somewhere else. And that's according to the Nevada State Performance Framework data. 

What are your goals for this year? 

I'm really looking forward to working with … the governor and other state leaders to try and improve the landscape, especially when it comes to funding and equities. That's obviously not something that I can do alone. Those conversations are already starting to happen about the next legislative cycle and what our priorities are.


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