Charter schools under scrutiny

Proposal would set rules on board's help to semi-independent schools in county

February 16, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

Frustrated by a local charter school's weak finances, use of underqualified teachers and botched paperwork, an Anne Arundel County school board member is drafting a proposal to limit the help given to the semi-independent schools.

Board vice president Eugene Peterson's proposal would provide intensive help in the first year with staffing, understanding state and federal laws, reduce the assistance by half in the second year and make them independent by the third year. Currently, there are no rules governing how much support the district should provide.

His push comes after the school system's alternative schools director, Kathy Lane, told the school board recently that monthly monitoring meetings have forced her and her staff to spend more time helping Chesapeake Science Point Charter School than any of the other 13 schools and programs her department oversees.

"They're supposed to be independent public charter schools, independent," said Peterson, who has openly denounced charter schools for "suck(ing) money away from public schools."

"We don't have an inordinate amount of support time to devote," he said. "The people helping the charter schools have other jobs to do, and [continuing support] detracts attention from other programs."

The board gave Chesapeake Science Point until April 30 to improve its finances and strengthen services for special education students, or risk losing its charter. The school board will discuss the school's status May 2.

Chesapeake Science Point director Fatih Kandil said such a proposal would not be fair.

"We all should share the problem. Let's not put the whole thing on the charter school. We are all making mistakes," he said.

Peterson plans to draft a proposal after talking with Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and other school board members. His proposal, which Peterson hopes to have on the table this summer, will make up for vagueness in a "cockamamie" state law that does not provide enough guidance for school systems, Peterson said.

Charter schools -- which are publicly funded but have greater freedom in curriculum and policies --started cropping up around the country 15 years ago. Now, roughly 3,600 charter schools are operating, with more than a million students enrolled.

Chesapeake Science Point, opened in 2004 and has 161 students in grades 6 to 8. The school plans to add a grade a year until 12th grade and already has 240 applications from parents who want to enroll their children next year.

Chesapeake Science Point is why Michelle Taylor's two children are in the public school system. After spending $50,000 on private schools in their elementary years, Taylor said, she was drawn by the charter school's focus on rigorous math and science courses.

She acknowledged that the school has some serious kinks to work out in special education.

"But all of the other stuff about our numbers, I feel it was a lot of nitpicking," Taylor said.

Trouble began at the Hanover school with an audit last spring that found financial reporting errors that would have put the school in the red, if not for generous donations from parents, board members and local businesses. The school's director, Kandil, said the donations (roughly $300,000 last year and another $135,000 this year) were necessary because the county paid the school for 104 students, not the 166 enrolled.

The county's other charter school, KIPP Harbor Academy in Edgewater, also had a problematic audit last year, but quickly addressed the issues. School officials say KIPP has had a smoother run because it is part of a national network of charter schools that has experience with various state and national laws. The Sun was unable to reach local KIPP principal Jallon Brown yesterday.

Financial troubles in charter schools are not new -- or unexpected. Across the country, more than 400 charter schools have closed because of budgeting problems, according to the Center for Education Reform, a think tank.

Still, Peterson decried what he called "the sugar daddy approach" to staying financially sound. School board member Enrique Melendez has asked the school to begin building a larger reserve.

"Otherwise, you're on thin ice to survive," he said.

But even as finances continue to be a problem, the school system has focused onanother key concern: Chesapeake Science Point's poor job of keeping up with individual education plans for the school's 11 special education students.

State and national laws require individual education plans that outline academic milestones for students with disabilities, a plan of how they will reach them and details of their progress.

Special education is a delicate area that brings a host of state and federal sanctions against school districts when rules are not followed, special education director Mary Tillar told the board.

The school was also recently cited because only three of its 11 teachers are "highly qualified," or certified in the subject they teach. Kandil says the other teachers are on provisional licenses and other alternative certification, approved by the state Some of them are also taking courses toward being "highly qualified," a requirement under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

"The teachers we have are teaching with licenses that are approved with the state. It is OK for them to teach. We are not breaking any law here," Kandil said.

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