Commission to let state’s first charter school stay open

SEATTLE — On a vote of 4-3, Washington’s first charter school is going to survive to teach another year, despite serious concerns by the statewide Charter School Commission about the school’s financial viability.

The commission voted Thursday to not revoke the school’s charter but to keep First Place on probation for 12 months with required monthly progress and financial reports. The commission left open the possibility of voting again to revoke the charter any time during that period.

Since opening last fall, First Place has been questioned repeatedly about its efforts to provide special education, its services for children who do not speak English at home, its financial stability and the school’s general education plan.

Commission Vice Chairman Larry Wright reminded the commission before it took a revocation vote that it had decided two weeks ago to give the school one more chance to show it had fixed its problems or face revocation. The school was given nine conditions to meet by this week and at the meeting on Thursday, commissioners agreed it had not met all nine goals.

“The last time we said it was the last time. We’re going to have 40 schools. And if the structure of decision-making is this fluid, we’ll be held to this precedent in the future,” said Wright, who cast his vote to revoke.

Washington’s charter school law will allow up to 40 of the independent public schools to open in the state. First Place opened as a public charter school after 25 years as a private school.

The commission is in charge of approving and overseeing most of the state’s charter schools. It has approved seven other charter schools, with six scheduled to open in the fall.

Spokane Public Schools, which can authorize charter schools, has approved two more schools scheduled to open in 2015.

Most of the commissioners commended the school for improving its education program.

Commissioner Trish Millines Dziko, who is executive director of the Technology Access Foundation, said no one on the state panel doubted the school’s commitment to kids, but keeping data on those kids and finding the money to keep the school open are just as important.

“You guys are doing great, great work in terms of improving your academics,” Dziko said. “None of that matters if you don’t have the money.”

Nationally, financial issues have tripped up more charter schools than other problems, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

In addition to the challenges any charter school will face in Washington as they try to survive on less than a regular public school budget, Seattle’s First Place Scholars has additional financial issues.

Because the state distributes dollars to schools based on projected enrollment and then requires the school to reimburse the state when student numbers do not meet that projection, First Place will need to find an additional $140,000 for next year.

School leader Linda Whitehead said they would try to get more donations to make up the shortfall and if that doesn’t work, they would ask the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to hold back that money from the school next year. The school already plans to raise about $200,000 to support its budget and gets as much as $100,0000 in in-kind help from its sister foundation that runs First Place housing and other services.

There are other known financial difficulties at the school. It missed out on about $148,000 in federal dollars this year because of problems with its special education program. At the meeting, Whitehead said some teachers would volunteer their time over the summer to provide summer school, that a donor was paying other summer school costs and that they were in line to get those federal dollars in the future.

Whitehead, who was hired midyear when the school was already having problems, said she was pleased with the commission’s decision and felt the organization was on track to keep moving forward.

“What is most important here is keeping the school open,” she said.

First Place Board Chairwoman Dawn Mason expressed confidence they can raise the money needed to keep the school going because the people of Seattle are that generous.

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