Anne Arundel County's only charter school is facing its most comprehensive review, while fighting to stay open, despite improving organization and student achievement.
The subject of critical audits since opening in 2005, Chesapeake Science Point charter school is on probation. A Dec. 13 review of its bookkeeping, human resources practices, student records and strategic plans will be used by county Schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell to help determine whether to recommend lifting or extending probation or revoking the school's charter.
While the charter school officials recognize the importance of an annual review, some say the number of auditors conducting the inspections shows the school system is gunning for them.
"I've never had this kind of an audit before with so many individuals coming in," said Principal Fatih Kandil, who said she was subject to state-level audits as a charter school director in Ohio. "I think it might be a waste of time and energy for people from the central office."
The conflict between the 219-student school and the system dates to the school's first year, when it opened five days late. Since then, school system officials have conducted two audits that criticized the school's finances, long-term plans, student recordkeeping and ability to meet state special education requirements.
The audit was triggered by the Board of Education's approval of an extended probationary period last May.
"It's not a witch hunt," said schools spokesman Bob Mosier. "The school system has expended a more-than-significant amount of time and resources to support them, while at the same time trying to honor their request for autonomy. ... We have to have a balance."
Kathy Lane, director of alternative schools, said 15 county school officials who oversee everything from food service to transportation will conduct the on-site review.
"We're trying to implement an accountability system that generates all the information needed to determine whether Chesapeake Science Point is meeting the goals articulated in their agreement," Lane said. "That's our role."
Kandil and Spear Lancaster, vice president of the Chesapeake Science Point's board of directors, questioned whether noncharter schools are subject to the same level of scrutiny.
The county's other public high schools do face external reviews by regional accrediting bodies, Lane said.
Chesapeake Science Point has made progress over the past several months, developing long-term facility plans and financial plans to address two areas of concern, charter school officials said.
County school board members were sharply critical of Chesapeake Science Point's dependency on $435,000 in private donations in previous school years.
Kandil said the gifts were necessary because the school was underfunded by $300,000. County contributions are based on spring enrollments, not the higher number of students that enroll each fall.
Although Kandil negotiated with the school system to change that part of the charter, he said the agreement has never been finalized. Instead, he has turned to free or inexpensive supply options to cut costs.
School officials are also considering three new locations for the coming school year, as well as long-range construction plans for a permanent site that would accommodate grades 6-12.
The county's other charter school, KIPP Harbor Academy, also had problematic audits and closed its doors last summer when it could not find a permanent location large enough for all of its students.
Chesapeake Science Point, however, has continued to expand. More than 400 students have applied for 45 sixth-grade places that will open in fall 2008. New students will be chosen by lottery in January.
Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform said school districts - especially those in states like Maryland that she considers to have weak charter school laws - have a pattern of "nitpicking" and "beating down" charter school administrators.
"This school district, like many across the country, needs to understand that they need to let them go," she said. "You don't send in an army to audit a school that by all means is succeeding."
The charter school is proving itself academically. Students surpassed county and state averages in reading and math in the Maryland School Assessments this year, and all seventh- and eighth-graders performed successfully on the algebra I High School Assessment.
Chesapeake Science Point is the only school in the county to claim a 100 percent pass rate two years in a row.
"As we progress and eliminate the problems, they're turning the other way," Lancaster said of the school system. "It almost seems they are looking for a glass half empty instead of a glass half full."