NC charter officials voice optimism about August opening of 25 schools

North Carolina charter officials said Monday they believe most of the state’s 25 new schools approved to open this fall can be ready, even though most of them fell short of the requirements by the end of May.

A report presented to the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board showed that only six had met all the requirements in a May readiness report – a new feature designed to head off problems such as the ones that recently forced Charlotte’s StudentFirst Academy to close after only eight months.

Charter school staff told the advisory board on Monday they’ve consulted with 17 of the 19 that must do more work to demonstrate readiness, and they’ll hold two more meetings this week.

“The majority of them are in really good shape,” said Tom Miller, a state charter school consultant.

The 25 slated to open in 2014-15 include 10 in the Charlotte region. Two, Pioneer Springs Community School and United Community School, are among the six listed as having met the May requirements.

Six Charlotte-area schools were listed as having “substantial” or “some” progress, which means they must file additional reports.

Eight schools statewide, including two in the Charlotte area and two in the Triangle area, were listed as making only “slight progress,” the lowest level.

Staff discussed no specifics about individual schools Monday, with the exception of Charlotte’s Entrepreneur High School.

Advisory board member Alex Quigley said he’s concerned to see Entrepreneur on the least-ready list after the advisory board held a special meeting with the Entrepreneur board in January. State officials granted permission for Entrepreneur to move ahead with a 2014 opening, even though the charter school’s governing board had dissolved itself in October, with founders recruiting new members.

“They said that it was going to be all fine and good,” Quigley said.

Miller and state consultant Kebbler Williams said the biggest problems for most schools are low enrollment, delays in getting a facility ready and problems with budgets or policies. When pressed for details about enrollment, Williams said three of the eight on the least-ready list are significantly short of projections.

Miller confirmed what Entrepreneur founder Hans Plotseneder told the Observer last week: The vocational high school has enough applicants and has met the requirements for having a building ready but has not yet done required reports.

Miller said the missing work includes demonstrating that the board has strategies for evaluating itself and administrators. Plotseneder and co-founder Hans Faulstich, who recruited the new board, plan to be administrators and teachers at the school.

“We did not have any evidence of any draft of (required) policies,” Miller said of Entrepreneur. “I can’t address whether they will be prepared to open on time.”

N.C. Charter School Director Joel Medley said the new checklist is designed to head off situations such as the 2013 startup struggles of StudentFirst Academy in Charlotte, which got into deep debt almost immediately after opening last August. It closed in April amid reports of financial irregularities and academic shortcomings.

Medley said his staff will continue to work with this year’s 25 startup schools. He said his staff could bring back a recommendation that the N.C. Board of Education delay openings for any that continue to fall short on enrollment, facilities or planning and preparation.

“We do have some that we’re concerned about,” he said after the advisory board meeting.

Also Monday, the advisory board endorsed a 12th application for opening in 2015-16. The board had previously recommended 11 of the 71 applications for state Board of Education approval; Ignite Innovation Academy, a Pitt County school that plans to rely heavily on technology and open with just over 200 K-5 students, was added to the list on Monday.

Medley also told the advisory board that Kestrel Heights School in Durham is being penalized for failing to comply with N.C. Open Meetings Law. The school had been granted a five-year charter extension but that is being reduced to three years because the Kestrel Heights board has failed to provide public notice of meetings and follow proper procedure for closed sessions, Medley said.

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