Education

Seven Charlotte-area charter schools are on state risk list

Invest Collegiate’s new building includes indoor exercise space, but the cost has contributed to a deficit, the school says.
Invest Collegiate’s new building includes indoor exercise space, but the cost has contributed to a deficit, the school says. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Seven Charlotte-area charter schools, including two that have been fighting for survival, are now on a state list of at-risk schools based on financial and/or academic problems, according to a recently released report.

Inclusion on the list does not mean the schools will be forced to close, though continuing problems can lead the state to stop public funding. That’s what happened to Crossroads Charter High and Kennedy Charter School this year; the two longstanding Charlotte charter schools are appealing a state decision to let their charters expire at the end of this school year.

Four newer Charlotte schools – Charlotte Learning Academy, Invest Collegiate, Charlotte Choice and Aristotle Prep – along with Success Institute in Statesville are also on this year’s risk list. All were labeled low performing based on last year’s test scores and have financial issues that raised flags with state monitors. Schools placed on financial disciplinary status were summoned to the March meeting of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board.

Since North Carolina lifted its 100-school cap in 2011, Mecklenburg and the surrounding counties have seen a surge of growth in charter schools, which are operated by independent boards and can take students from across county lines. About 15,500 Mecklenburg students are in charter schools this year, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools expects that to grow by almost 2,700 next year, dwarfing the growth in CMS.

But totals have proven difficult for CMS to predict. Several established schools are growing and the state approves new schools every year, but those schools’ projections don’t always match reality.

Letters submitted by two of the schools say the boom in new charter schools in Charlotte has made it difficult to fill new schools. Each school’s state and county funding is based on head counts, so a shortage of students means budget cuts.

For instance, Charlotte Learning Academy initially budgeted for 310 students when it opened in 2014. Approximately 250 pre-enrolled, but only 145 showed up, a letter to the state says.

“We learned that many families actually enrolled in several different charter schools in the Charlotte area and did not decide which one to attend until the last moment,” the letter says. “We understand that several other new charter schools that opened the same year in the Charlotte area found themselves in this same position.”

Instead of the anticipated $2.9 million budget, the Charlotte Learning Academy letter says, the school had $1.6 million to work with, leading to cuts in faculty, transportation and consulting fees. The administrative team also took pay cuts, the letter says.

The school relied on a bank line of credit and an interest-free loan from a board member to survive the first year, the letter says, and is now in a stronger financial position.

Invest Collegiate planned for 558 students, but when it opened in temporary classrooms in 2013 it had only 91. The second year came closer to projections, says a letter from Head of School Antoinette Ellison, but the two-year enrollment shortfall “combined with the costs, expected and unexpected, of building an 86,000 (square foot) state of the art facility” created an increased deficit.

Ellison wrote that Invest Collegiate’s board decided to wait a year on adding a high school so it could strengthen the school’s academic and financial standing. However, that caused enrollment to drop from 792 students at the start of this school year to 614 as of the letter, dated Feb. 26.

Deanna Townsend-Smith, lead consultant for the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, said the advisory board took no action after talking to the school representatives but will continue to monitor the schools on the list.

Charter risk list

Here’s the status of Charlotte-area charter schools that were on a “risk of poor performance” list presented at a recent N.C. Charter School Advisory Board meeting.

Aristotle Prep

Basics: Elementary school that opened in 2013; has about 180 students.

Financial: On cautionary status because of “signs of financial insolvency.”

Academic: Low performing in 2014-15.

Charlotte Choice

Basics: Elementary-middle school that opened in 2013; has about 300 students.

Financial: On probationary status because tax-exempt status was revoked in 2014; the school has provided copies of a reinstatement packet filed with the IRS but remains on probation until it can provide evidence that the IRS has reinstated its status.

Academic: Low performing in 2014-15.

Charlotte Learning Academy

Basics: Middle-high school that opened in 2014; has about 200 students.

Financial: Placed on disciplinary status in 2016 based on “signs of financial insolvency.”

Academic: Low performing in 2014-15.

Crossroads High

Basics: High school that opened in Charlotte 2001; has about 160 students. Appealing a state decision to let the charter expire this summer, which would force closing.

Financial: On disciplinary status because of declining enrollment and “significant signs of financial insolvency.”

Academic: Low performing in 2014-15.

Invest Collegiate

Basics: Elementary-middle school that opened in Charlotte in 2013; has about 600 students.

Financial: Placed on disciplinary status in 2016 based on problems cited in prior year’s audit.

Academic: Low performing in 2014-15.

Kennedy Charter

Basics: K-12 school that opened in Charlotte in 1998; has about 340 students. Appealing a state decision to let the charter expire this summer, which would force closing.

Financial: Cautionary status has been lifted.

Academic: Low performing in 2014-15.

Success Institute

Basics: Elementary-middle school that opened in Statesville in 2000; has 86 students.

Financial: On cautionary status because enrollment has declined for the last three years and is approaching the minimum allowed by law.

Academic: Low performing in 2014-15.

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