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The $10 million question: Can Design-Lab keep its grant and become a “super school”?

Delaware Public Media

With concerns about Delaware Design-Lab High School’s organizational structure and management team apparently resolved by a state Department of Education ruling last week, the charter school’s community is turning its focus to a more controversial issue with huge financial implications.

Will Cristina Alvarez, the Design-Lab co-founder who no longer has a role in the school’s operations, retain responsibility for managing the $10 million grant the school received last August from the XQ Super School Project? And, if Alvarez and Martin Rayala, the other cofounder, are removed from the project team, will XQ take action to revoke the grant?

“I can’t tell you as much as you would like to know. I can’t do hypotheticals,” XQ President Matt Lorin told Delaware Public Media.

“This is not the first time to have infighting and struggles” among factions within award-winning schools, Lorin says.  “The situation is concerning. There’s no question it’s difficult for us…. We’re hopeful, we’re optimistic that they’ll work things out.”

Alvarez and Rayala were the driving forces on the team that created the grant application last year, but Alvarez resigned as Design-Lab’s CEO and head of school on February 3 – “voluntarily,” the school’s board of directors say, or “under duress,” she says – in the middle of a complicated dispute involving the board, a limited-liability corporation Alvarez created to manage the school’s operations and a modification to the school’s charter. That modification, approved last week by state Secretary of Education Susan Bunting, clarified the school’s operating structure and essentially eliminated any references in the charter to Alvarez and her business.

Even with the charter modification, Alvarez remains – for now – as Design-Lab’s official link to the XQ Project, which last year awarded ten $10 million, five-year grants to schools and education agencies nationwide to develop prototypes for innovative 21st-century high schools.

The conflict between Alvarez and the board developed shortly after she signed the paperwork from XQ accepting the grant and designating her as the official representative from Design-Lab’s “XQ Team” to the XQ organization, based in Oakland, California.

While Alvarez no longer has any official role in the school’s operations, the school’s board of directors does not have the authority to change her designation as manager of the grant. Under the agreement with XQ, that’s a decision to be made by the entire XQ team, which has more than 50 members, comprised of Design-Lab board members, faculty and administration, students, parents and other stakeholders.

Alvarez says “a small faction” of the board is trying to push her out. She claims that she and Rayala are the targets of “an ongoing strategy to make a hostile takeover of the school with the objective of co-opting the XQ grant.”

The money from XQ has barely started to arrive, but the debate over Alvarez’s status has intensified in the last few weeks.

Thus far the school has received $200,000, which is being used to pay for professional development sessions during the summer, according to Rebecca Collins, vice chairman of Design-Lab’s board of directors. That money is being kept in the school’s name in a bank account separate from the school’s operating funds.

To hear Alvarez tell it, she and Rayala have poured their lives into the school. She says that they “created one of the most innovative schools in the world to provide unprecedented educational opportunity for underserved youth.” Starting the school, she says, “is the culmination of years of professional and personal financial commitment.”

Alvarez and Rayala say their vision, and their knowledge of the design thinking concept that is key to the school’s academic program, is essential to the successful development of a prototype for a new school model, one that they would implement at Design-Lab and would hope to have replicated in other communities across the nation.

While Collins, whom Alvarez describes as “my nemesis,” says the school would be pleased to have Alvarez and Rayala continue to work on the project, she has also said that the rest of the school’s XQ team has the talent and dedication to carry on without them.

Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, an advocacy and advisory group for charters, understands Alvarez’s position but is standing with Collins.

“I was there at the beginning [with Alvarez and Rayala] but they did not win the grant just because two people had a vision. Fifty people at least were involved. [Alvarez and Rayala] were a big part of it, but they are not all of it. The heart of it is that school,” Massett says.

Alvarez has her supporters too. “Some of the pieces [in the dispute] aren’t fitting,” says Doris Wells-Papanek, an Illinois education consultant who heads the Design Learning Network and serves on the XQ team. “It doesn’t add up” that Alvarez would have resigned her position at a school she founded so soon after the school had won such a significant grant. She suggests that some members of the board “who work in professions that have nothing to do with the learning process” are eager to get their hands on the grant money.

Another XQ team member, who asked not to be identified, said the dispute is rooted in lapses in communication from Alvarez to other members of the team, especially those associated with the school’s board of directors.

“We want Cristina and Martin to be involved. It would be silly to try to implement the project without them, but there’s so much organizational stuff getting in the way of us moving forward with clarity,” the team member said.

Within the last two weeks, the team member said, an email vote was held on whether there should be a change in who serves as the designated representative to XQ. According to the team member, the team voted in favor of making a change, but multiple questions were raised about the procedure, including whether students should have been permitted to vote and claims that voting was closed prematurely and the results announced prior to the time designated for balloting to end.

“There have been emails flying back and forth,” Wells-Papanek says.

It is not clear what will happen next, Wells-Papanek and the other team member said.

There are two options, Wells-Papanek says. “XQ will bail out” and revoke the grant if Alvarez and Rayala are removed from the team or “XQ will spend the money” and risk not having anything to show for it when the grant period expires.

Then she mentioned a third possibility: “Litigation. It’s not out of the question.”

Neither Collins nor Alvarez would offer hints on what their next steps might be.

Papanek did offer several suggestions aimed at resolving the dispute. Among her ideas, reinstating Alvarez and Rayala in substantive leadership roles, and having both sides agree to retain “an independent/vetted service to mediate the grant monies and leadership decisions.”

At XQ, Lorin remains hopeful that the differences can be settled, if only because competing factions at other units that have received grants have been able to reach compromises.

“We’re totally committed to what’s best for the students in Delaware,” he says. However, to achieve that objective, he adds, “everyone has to rise above. Everyone has to be dedicated.”

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