NC charter official: We didn’t force early closing of StudentFirst Academy

As a dwindling number of StudentFirst Academy students report for their last day Friday, a state charter school official said the abrupt spring closing was not the state’s plan.

The StudentFirst board informed parents last week that the financially troubled school would close with less than two months left in the school year. Several parents said board leaders told them the state had urged them to voluntarily close the west Charlotte charter school now, rather than wait to have the charter revoked at year’s end.

StudentFirst board members did not return calls for comment Thursday.

Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools, said he had assumed that StudentFirst, which built up about $600,000 in debt in its first few months, would close in June. State officials have been investigating allegations of financial, management and academic irregularities since November, and demanded a detailed report by March 31.

“But they then informed me that they could not pay teacher salaries or payroll taxes beyond April 15,” Medley said in a statement. “For that reason, they wanted to close immediately. Had the charter revocation process been implemented, which we were going to recommend, they would have stayed open through the end of the year.”

The school opened with 338 K-8 students and was down to 266 before the closing was announced. Since then, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools staff have been working to place students. Some transferred to CMS schools immediately, while others are expected to wait until after next week’s spring break.

A teacher at StudentFirst told the Observer on Thursday that about half of the 34 students in his two classes had already left the school.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison noted the district is prepared to help the new students. “While a transfer so late in the school year is not easy for parents or students, we are confident that we will be able to welcome any new students smoothly and seamlessly,” he said in a report to the CMS board.

Charter schools are public schools authorized by the state Board of Education and run by independent nonprofit boards. They are intended to provide academic options that district schools may not offer.

StudentFirst founders had touted it as a better academic environment for students in impoverished west Charlotte neighborhoods that would “offer these children a way to escape the spiral of poverty and crime that currently confronts them.”

However, a series of Observer stories on the school revealed allegations of financial irregularities, mismanagement and academic shortcomings.

Just over a month ago, the school’s board members assured state charter school officials that they could afford to get though the school year and gradually repay $600,000 in overdue bills and bank loans.

StudentFirst board chair Victor Mack said last week that “extensive press coverage” of the school’s problems led to declining enrollment, which eroded the school’s ability to recover financially. On Thursday he and other board leaders did not return calls.

Former board member Larry Kennedy Jr. of Charlotte said he was surprised at how fast things had unraveled. He says he left the board early in the school’s history due to lack of time to serve. StudentFirst had been a small private school before converting to a charter school.

“The parents I talked to thought highly of it,” he said. “What I hate about this whole thing is that you’re interrupting a kid’s school year. The fact that they can’t finish out the year where they started – with only a couple of months left – that’s tough on kids.”