DOVER – The State Board of Education Thursday approved Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery’s recommendations to keep two charter schools open, but on probation. The Charter School Accountability Committee had originally recommended that the two schools, Pencader Charter High School and Reach Academy for Girls, have their charters revoked. The schools have faced serious financial and leadership issues.
At public hearings last week, Pencader Charter and Reach Academy each provided additional information to state officials demonstrating their viability. Following on those hearings, Lowery recommended probation for both troubled charters. The probation will keep the schools under close scrutiny from the Department of Education, and they each must meet certain conditions in order to remain open.
For both Reach and Pencader, those conditions are:
- Board members must attend and complete financial training provided by state no later than Sept. 30.
- Each school’s Citizen Budget Oversight Committee must meet within 30 days and continue to meet monthly, and all committee members must take state-provided financial training.
- By Sept. 1 each school must provide information about the school’s day-to-day financial operations and about who at school level is responsible for school finances.
- Starting Sept. the school must submit monthly financial updates to the state.
Additionally Pencader faces the following requirements:
- It must submit a revised 2011-2012 budget that includes correct interest payments and a 2012-2013 budget that includes interest, loan payments, and any other changes to the budget. Those budgets are subject to the final approval by Department of Education.
- All those involved with Pencader’s financial matters must meet monthly with representatives of the Department of Education to discuss finances and administrative issues for as long as the state deems necessary.
- The state must have unlimited access to all of Pencader’s financial records,
- By Aug. 1, Pencader must provide the state with evidence that it has paid in full its $160,000 Aqua loan and with documentation of any new loan related to the refinancing that loan. Any new loan cannot exceed $160,000 and Pencader must repay the principal balance of the new loan by Sept. 1, 2012.
- Pencader cannot incur any additional debt without the prior written consent of the Department of Education.
- By June 30, 2013, Pencader must repay its $300,000 loan from Greggo & Ferrara and must be debt free.
Reach Academy meet additional conditions are:
- By Sept. 1, the school board must submit a revised 2011-2012 budget that explains funding sources for teacher salaries, instructional supplies and utility expenses.
- By Sept. 1, the school board must find funding sources for instructional materials for four years since these materials will no longer be funded through federal startup funds.
- The school must meet quarterly with Department of Education officials to explain how the school is maintaining academic standards while tightening its budget.
If the schools fail to meet the probationary conditions, their charters could be revoked.
“These schools must meet their financial, governance and academic expectations. With state supervision and support, I hope to see them exceed them,” Lowery said in a news release provided immediately after the state board meeting. “But if they fail, we owe it to our students and taxpayers to close their doors.”
Board member Dr. Terry M. Whittaker, the only member who abstained from voting, worried that the Department of Education had not set out clear and transparent consequences for the schools if they don’t meet the conditions.
“We need a comprehensive narrative on ‘what ifs’,” he said. “We’re making a loose contract.”
Lowery assured Whittaker that the Department had a contingency plan if the school’s charters were to be revoked, so that students would have a place to go. She also suggested that close monitoring required by the probationary period would alert the department of problems far faster than other mechanisms.
In the end, all the board members, except Whittaker, voted to follow Lowery’s recommendation.
As the board voted to keep the schools open representatives from both Pencader and Reach breathed audible sighs of relief.
“I’m thrilled,” said Harrie Ellen Minnehan, president of the Pencader school board. “Now we have to work like mad.”
Jodi O’Ferrall, the Parent Representative on the Reach School Board, looked visibly relieved.
“We’re ready to move forward with a new school year,” she said.