N.C. charter advisers give StudentFirst a month to save the school

State charter officials Monday gave StudentFirst Academy a month to present a detailed financial and educational plan that will help them decide whether the west Charlotte school should remain open next year.

Charter staff and members of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board expressed concerns that the independently run public school has run up $600,000 in debt since it opened in August – debts the board says will be repaid partly with Mecklenburg County money.

The board also heard that a state inspection last week uncovered a lack of proper services for students with disabilities, with records in such disarray that the state can’t even determine how many students are entitled to help. The school has no special education teachers or program, but it was sending students to a private speech-therapy contractor without documentation that those services were needed, according to a report presented to the advisory board.

“The picture here is somewhat bleak,” said Joel Medley, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools. The question for the board, he said, is: “Is this something that you believe can be fixed, or is this something you believe warrants potential shutdown of the school?”

Advisory board members, most of whom are leaders of charter schools, said they need more details. The final decision on whether to revoke the charter granted last year will fall to the N.C. Board of Education. Medley urged the advisory board to make its recommendation in April so the process can be complete by the end of the school year.

At stake is about $3 million a year in taxpayer money and the fate of 293 K-8 students and a staff of 28.

StudentFirst board members said they believe they can repay $250,000 in bank loans and $350,000 in overdue bills over the next 2 1/2 years, using the per-pupil share of county money that is passed along to charters. They said they hope to supplement that by holding fundraisers.

The board leaders blame the debts and start-up turmoil on fired Head of School Phyllis Handford and Deputy Head Sandra Moss, saying the two women overstaffed the school, inflated administrative salaries and ran up bills without proper documentation. They told state charter officials the two women misled the board about enrollment and finances in the opening months.

Handford and Moss are suing the StudentFirst board for wrongful termination. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Tuesday. They have declined to comment, citing their lawyer’s advice.

StudentFirst board Chairman Victor Mack and Vice Chair Jennifer Winstel said they have created a recovery budget and hired a new head of school and are rebuilding with the help of families and faculty.

“We have 28 dedicated employees who have stayed the course and are doing the work,” Winstel said. “I can assure you the best people stayed and are committed.”

However, Mack said that the board was misled and let down again by a special education director who was recently fired. The board believed she was getting records and services on track in January after the startup snarls, he said, but learned otherwise.

“It’s still all goofed up? Is that what I heard?” asked Advisory Board Chairman Helen Nance.

“We thought we were in compliance,” Mack said. “We are far from it.”

Advisory board member Alan Hawkes said the charter school board is responsible for oversight and finance. “Who was minding the store?” he asked Mack.

However, after hearing Mack and Winstel speak, Hawkes said he’s willing to see their follow-up plan.

“I’m impressed by the honesty and the integrity and the contrition,” he said. “There’s no attempt to candy-coat this.”

The advisory board said the StudentFirst board must return in April with a detailed financial recovery plan. They must also bring new Head of School Derrick Gates and whoever is hired to run the special education program. And Medley said one of his staff will make an unannounced visit to see how education is going.

Also Monday, the advisory board voted unanimously to recommend giving Douglass Academy, a new charter school in Wilmington, another year to meet the legally mandated minimum enrollment of 65. School officials said they projected first-year enrollment of 225 when their application was approved, then modified that to 125 after difficulties finding a building. School leaders said they faced other startup hurdles, including mailers to recruit families that were not delivered, and ended up with 33 students.

If Douglass doesn’t have 65 students by October 2014, it will have to surrender its charter at the end of that school year, the advisory board said. The Board of Education will decide whether to endorse that plan.

The startup struggles come as North Carolina is rapidly expanding the number of charter schools around the state, with growth particularly strong in the Charlotte region. StudentFirst was among 25 new schools that opened this year. Another 26, including 11 serving Mecklenburg students, have been approved for 2014-15, and the advisory board is reviewing 71 applications for 2015-16.