Troubled StudentFirst charter school closes abruptly

A charter school born of high hopes and big promises ended Thursday in anger and tears, as families learned that StudentFirst Academy will close at the end of next week.

The charter board, which won state approval to open the west Charlotte charter school in August, cited ever-deepening financial problems as it surrendered its state charter Wednesday. On that night, board members began telling parents that their students’ last day would be April 11.

That leaves about 270 K-8 students scrambling to find schools less than two months before the school year ends. Parents who gathered at the school Thursday said they fear their children will fail state exams and could be forced to repeat a grade.

“The heart-rending part of the whole deal is the students,” said parent Connie Dobie. “They’re asking ‘What do we do now? Where are we going?’ ”

The school’s problems have been well known since early this year, when the Observer reported on allegations of financial irregularities, mismanagement and academic shortcomings. State officials have been investigating since November and had talked about revoking the StudentFirst charter before it could reopen in August.

But the abrupt closing stunned parents who had stuck with the school through its struggles. Several said Head of School Derrick Gates, hired in January to turn the school around, and the remaining teachers had been doing good work.

“We love these teachers here,” said parent Alice Williams. “We brought our kids here for a better chance, and it is so hard to bring them out.”

Many employees were laid off in December, after the board fired Head of School Phyllis Handford and Deputy Head Sandra Moss. The board was reacting to a consultant’s report that said the two founders had boosted their own salaries, put Handford’s family members on the payroll, overstaffed on administration, fallen behind on bills and failed to document expenses. Handford and Moss are now suing the StudentFirst board for breach of contract.

The remaining StudentFirst employees will lose their jobs effective April 15.

For Richard Ramos, a teacher who is here on a work visa, the closing means he’s not only out of work but must try to find money to fly his family back to the Philippines. He said the StudentFirst board assured faculty they would fight for the school’s survival. But in the end, he said, “they gave up,” leaving teachers and students to suffer.

Decision to close

Less than a month ago, StudentFirst board members assured state charter school officials that they could afford to get through the school year and repay $600,000 in overdue bills and bank loans over the next 2 1/2 years. The state gave the board a month to provide a detailed financial and academic report, with a follow-up meeting scheduled for April 8.

The state Office of Charter Schools sent staff to inspect the school in March. The team reported concerns with the instruction and the support for students with disabilities, said Director Joel Medley.

On Monday, when the report was due, StudentFirst board members instead called Medley to talk about closing the school “because the financial situation was worse than what they anticipated,” Medley said Thursday. He said they cited declining enrollment.

When the state approved a budget of $3 million in public money for StudentFirst’s first year, it was based on projections for 432 students. The school opened with 338, and Medley said the latest count he heard was 266. The dwindling enrollment reduced the amount of local and state money available to StudentFirst, though the final tally was not available.

On Tuesday, the StudentFirst board held an emergency meeting and voted to surrender the charter. They did so Wednesday at an N.C. Board of Education meeting in Pembroke.

“We haven’t had a disaster like this that I can recall,” said state Board of Education member John Tate of Charlotte, who said the school’s collapse serves as a warning about the need for tight scrutiny as North Carolina expands its network of public schools run by private nonprofit boards.

In a brief statement released Thursday, StudentFirst board Chairman Victor Mack blamed “extensive publicity,” the ongoing lawsuit and “decreases in funding” for the decision to close.

The school must still undergo a closing audit, which will reveal more about the spending that got the school so deeply in debt so quickly. So far there is no indication of criminal activity, Medley said, but “we will know more from that point.”

The law says the school’s assets will be sold to pay off debts. Any remaining unpaid bills are the responsibility of the nonprofit corporation created to run StudentFirst, not state or local taxpayers, Medley said.

Families desperate

Staff from the Office of Charter Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plan to be at StudentFirst next week to help families plan a transition.

Several parents said they enrolled their children in StudentFirst because it promised strong academics, long hours and a cultural arts program. Even when many of the promises failed to materialize, those who stuck it out said they believed StudentFirst was better than their CMS options.

Now, they say, charters, private schools and CMS magnets won’t take new students, leaving only their assigned neighborhood schools.

“I feel as though I failed my son in this process of trying to achieve a better education for him,” Rucelle Robinson, parent of an eighth-grader, said in an email. “(End-of-grade) tests are coming (and) he is ill prepared, lack of books all year, not even a full classroom set of books.”

Parent Erinn Rochelle said she is trying to organize a new board of parents and teachers to run the school for the final weeks of this year. “If there’s any miraculous way to keep this school open, we need to do that,” she said.

But since the founding board has surrendered its charter, “I do not see how that is an option,” Medley said.

What lessons?

The state legislature lifted the 100-school cap on charters in 2011, and StudentFirst was among 23 authorized in the first surge of expansion. An additional 26 schools have been approved to open in August, and the state is screening 71 applications to open schools in 2015-16.

Bill Anderson of MeckEd, a nonprofit advocacy group that works closely with CMS, said the StudentFirst collapse shows the need for better oversight and the hazards of a rush to authorize more schools.

“I think we should all be concerned as more charter schools come online,” he said. “At the end of the day, is this what’s best for the children?”

Eddie Goodall of Union County, a former state senator who heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, said the state investigation and pressure to fix the problems or close the school prove the oversight system works. But he said the state Board of Education needs to create a way to keep StudentFirst open through the end of this year.

“Those children deserve another five weeks of education,” Goodall said.

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