The state may have given Thunderbird Prep charter school a year to fix its problems, but the June threat to close the school has driven away the students it needs to rebuild, the principal said Monday.
The Cornelius K-6 school has just over 150 students this year, compared with 462 last year, school leaders told the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Board. That means operating money from the state and local governments will drop accordingly, even as the school tries to pay off debts and get on a solid financial footing.
Principal Emmanuel Vincent told the board he expects to lay off 10 to 12 employees, including teachers and administrators. The drop in enrollment, well below even the 250 who were on the roster just before school opened, means the school can’t afford the full staff.
The “hemorrhaging” of students has come even as the school repaired flood damage and logged a strong academic performance for 2016, earning a B from the state and meeting student growth targets, school leaders said.
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“That revocation (vote), you may as well have punched me in the gut,” said Principal Emmanuel Vincent, who was hired last spring. “You talk about putting a dagger in someone’s heart.”
In June, the advisory board voted to recommend closing Thunderbird, which opened in 2014, after hearing about financial and leadership problems, parent complaints and building problems resulting from spring flooding that included mold and rodents. The board quickly relented, instead asking the state Board of Education to require intensive monitoring for the coming year to see if the school’s board and new principal can remedy the problems.
The Board of Education, which decides whether charter boards can receive public money, agreed to that plan. Monday’s meeting in Raleigh was the first of two required reviews before the advisory board. It brought no action, though heated conflict continued.
Some advisory board members and state staff bristled at the suggestion that they were to blame for Thunderbird’s struggles.
“It was a total disaster,” advisory board member Steven Walker said of the school’s condition last spring, when controversy over hiring a new principal created bitter rifts among board members and parents, with floods damaging the building. “What did you want us to do? Just clap and say, ‘Good job’? … Don’t lay this blame at our feet.”
Charter schools, which are public schools run by independent nonprofit boards, get state and local money based on enrollment.
Thunderbird officials said the state’s first payment for the 2016-17 school year was based on 462 students. That means the next two installments will be much smaller, adjusted not only for lower enrollment but for the initial overpayment.
This year’s student tally will be taken on the 20th day of school, coming later this month. Vincent and board Chair Peter Mojica said they have hired six part-time people to help drum up more students, putting fliers in mailboxes, knocking on doors and holding recruitment drives outside a nearby Walmart.
Mojica, Vincent and one of the school’s financiers told the advisory board that municipal bonds issued to buy and renovate the school’s building on Old Statesville Road include a contingency fund that will be used to cover any gaps in this year’s operating budget. The school operated in the red during its first year and was late filing that year’s audit, landing the school on financial disciplinary status.
The 2015-16 audit is due Oct. 31. Alexis Schauss, director of school business for the Department of Public Instruction, said the school’s financial arrangements are complex and it remains unclear how close it can come to covering expenses with the money that comes in.
School leaders voiced optimism that they can rebuild.
Thunderbird board member Nancy Borrell said parents should view the current situation as “the opportunity of a lifetime” in a part of Mecklenburg County where charter schools tend to have large waiting lists. Students who want to switch to Thunderbird now can do so and be assured a spot, she said.
“This is an opportunity for parents that wanted to have their child in a charter school and never got in through a lottery,” Borrell said.