The Malarkey From Freire Is Very Arrogant!

It is school choice season, when schools across Delaware say “Pick me, we are the best!”  The only problem is when a school pretends they are the best and boasts of things that really aren’t that great to begin with.  Such is the case with Freire, a charter school in Wilmington.

A parent sent me a letter Freire sent to their child.  Way to lap it up Freire! Continue reading

Moment of Truth for 8 Delaware Charter Schools

On December 20th, the State Board of Education will decide on seven charter school renewals at their monthly meeting after hearing the decision by Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting.  Meanwhile, the Red Clay Consolidated School District Board of Education will decide on Charter School of Wilmington’s charter renewal.  Two charters want a ten-year renewal.  Two have submitted minor modification requests to decrease enrollment.  Yesterday, the Delaware DOE’s Charter School Office released the final reports for all seven charters up for renewal through their office.  Continue reading

Sussex Montessori School To Delay Opening For A Year

In April, the Delaware Department of Education approved the charter school application for Sussex Montessori School.  They were originally scheduled to open in the 2019-2020 school year.  Now they will open in the 2020-2021 as long as they hit 80% of their enrollment target by May 1st of 2020.

The charter school submitted a minor modification request to the Delaware Department of Education last month and on October 9th, Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting approved the request.

Based on this, no new charter schools will have opened in Delaware during the five-year period between 2015 to 2020.

The reasons, such as having enough time to make renovations on the planned site and hiring a Head of School, can be seen below.

Delaware Design Lab Submitted A Modification To Change Their Name To Design Thinking Academy

Updated, 9/25/18: The title of this article has been changed to reflect that the school did submit a minor modification request to change their name.  This was approved by Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting at the end of August.

As announced by Jessica Bies with the News Journal last week, Delaware Design Lab High School is now Design Thinking Academy.  The charter school did submit a major modification request last year to decrease their enrollment but they never submitted a minor modification request to change the name of the school. Continue reading

Bunting Sends DE Design-Lab H.S. Minor Modification Request To Full Charter School Accountability Committee Review! Big Issues!

Just when things were getting quiet in Delaware Charterville, it looks like Delaware Design-Lab is having some very big organizational issues.  The school submitted a minor modification request that has to be seen to be believed.  The Head of School quit in February and there are all sorts of financial issues going on surrounding their LLC status and even the name of the school!  Given that the school did not meet their April 1st required numbers of 80% enrollment for the 2017-2018 school year and the bombshells in this application, I don’t blame Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting for referring this to the Charter School Accountability Committee.  The situation looks rather complicated and it needs a set of eyes to get more information on this developing situation over at what could soon be called DDLHS.  I had a feeling something was going on with this school.

 

2016 September 30th Report Shows 4% Increase In Special Education, 7.8% Increase For Charter Enrollment

The Delaware Department of Education came out with the 2016 September 30th Enrollment Report.  This document shows the head count for each school district and charter school in Delaware public schools.  As I predicted, special education students rose again this year.  To qualify for special education, a student must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP).  With the exception of vocational schools, both the traditional school districts and charter schools went up in enrollment statewide.  The growth for traditional school districts was anemic at best, with only a .32% increase from last year.  Overall state enrollment went up by .9%.  Once again, charter schools saw the greatest growth with a rise of 7.8% over last year.  No new charter schools opened this year, however many submitted modifications last year to increase enrollments and grades in one case.  Other charter schools began new grades this year based on their approved charters.  Some districts saw very steady growth but others saw continuing drops. Continue reading

Academy Of Dover’s Do Or Die Moment Has To Happen NOW!

Academy of Dover is up for charter renewal this fall.  The Secretary of Education will announce his recommendation at the December State Board of Education meeting and then the State Board will vote on it.  The school has a gigantic hurdle to overcome: their enrollment.

Today, the Charter School Accountability Committee released the report from their initial  meeting with Academy of Dover on October 10th.

Mr. Blowman noted that the school’s enrollment has declined steadily over the years, from 308 students in school year 2013-14 to 247 students this school year.

That is a very serious drop!  Their approved charter enrollment is 300 students.  Charters can’t go below 80% of that, so their magic number is 240.  How bad is it?  To put things in perspective, they decreased their Kindergarten classes from 3 to 2 this year because of lower enrollment.  That is their bread and butter for future growth.

Ms. Johnson stated that if the current 2016-17 enrollment is projected out based on the trends to date, the school would be at 46% enrollment in four years, well below the required 80%. She added that this trend is occurring at every grade level versus one particular cohort. She reiterated that the school must provide a strong plan to mitigate this year’s reduced kindergarten enrollment and the low year-to-year retention rates.

Teacher retention was also an issue, but Academy of Dover is not immune to this issue.  Many charters and districts regularly suffer through this process each year.

This is my problem with charter school renewals.  So much of it is based on standardized test scores.  Far too much of it.  I can’t sit here and mock charters about low test scores while demonizing them in traditional schools.  This very huge flaw in education is universal.  For any school to feel they have to create a “Smarter Balanced Boot Camp” to drive up scores shows exactly what is wrong with the system to begin with.  This school already has a long day, from 7:45 to 3:30.  By keeping struggling students until 5pm and factoring in transportation, that is half of a student’s day.  Gone.

One thing I was very happy to see was a minor modification request submitted by Academy of Dover to reduce their number of school days from 200 to 180.  Citing a lot of absenteeism of students the first two weeks of school and the last two weeks, the school said they are listening to parents.  But of course the DOE has to pick that apart as well.

I believe the DOE needs to take a strong look at their Charter School Accountability Committee.  The non-voting members, at least two of them, had a lot to say during this meeting.  More than I’ve seen in a long time.  But when one of the voting members could potentially stand to gain if the school shut down… that I have a huge problem with.

The next Charter School Accountability Committee meeting, where the committee will give their final recommendation, will occur in late November or early December.  I think the school has come a long way since the Noel Rodriguez days.  I think they realize what their major mistakes were and have attempted to take swift action.  The addition of Gene Capers, a former Principal from Capital School District, as a curriculum director, was a stroke of genius.  Cheri Marshall has come a long way.  While she was thrust into a position of leadership based on another person’s wrong actions, she has grown in that role.  I saw a confidence in her at the renewal meeting last week that I didn’t see during their formal review a year and a half ago.  While this may seem to be too little too late for those who are no longer at the school, no human being can change the past but they can try to make a better future.

I gave this school a very hard time the past couple of years.  So much of that surrounded a central theme: transparency.  I think the combination of Rodriguez’ shenanigans, special education issues, and their start and stop time of the school year are playing a major part in their current enrollment woes.  My recommendation: approve their minor modification and let them stay open.  See what happens in the fall.  If their enrollment falls below 80%, the DOE will be forced to follow the law.  But give them a chance.  We have had far too many charter schools close that serve minority and low-income populations the past few years.  It is not good.  They have to get special education right, but they are not the only school in this state struggling with that.  We must, as a state, clearly define a better strategy for special education and make sure all schools are consistent with that path.

 

 

How Newark Charter School Cooked Their Books To Break The Law In Delaware

Newark Charter School found a way to overtly break Delaware charter school laws and they are using parents and students to do it.

Yesterday, an anonymous source informed Mike Matthews that Newark Charter School’s student body activity funds are legit.  Be that as it may, they aren’t reporting the revenue generated from these activities.  Instead, they are putting at as an expense on their monthly budget.  They aren’t reporting this revenue anywhere.  But they are showing the expense on their monthly budget.  How much are they getting overall?  That is unknown, but I was able to find out they are using student body activity revenue to pay for items they should not be according to Delaware law.

Newark Charter School does not post a 990 IRS tax form on their website.  They are exempt from even filing this return.  Why?  Because way back during the Bill Clinton years, they had elected officials on their founding board.  Granted, none of those elected officials are there anymore.  No one has ever questioned NCS at a state level about this before and they just assume it is alright.  Even though the IRS issued very specific guidance to charter schools about this type of exemption.  But of course Newark Charter School takes advantage of this ambiguity.  Until the IRS determines they are not exempt, they will continue to not file tax returns.  Even though they should and the reasons for them not doing so are the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.  On IRS 990 tax forms, non-profit corporations are required to show any revenue they receive.  They don’t have to pay taxes at all, but they are required to show their numbers.

There are a multitude of reasons why Newark Charter School would not want to file an IRS tax return.  They are the only Delaware charter school specifically exempt from this.  Academy of Dover had their corporation status rescinded by the IRS some years ago, but the Delaware Dept. of Education turned a blind eye to this glaring fact during the school’s formal review last year which was in part over financial viability.  Eventually, Academy of Dover was able to restore this status and are now filing their 990 forms on their website.  But Newark Charter School took advantage of the bogus loopholes in this IRS regulation and have had a field day with it ever since.

This was my biggest issue with any changes to House Bill 186, the original charter school audit bill.  My sense was that anything even associated with charter school audit legislation would only be tainted by Senator David Sokola.  This would somehow benefit Newark Charter School and keep their finances in the dark.  Anyone can make a budget and show numbers on it, but a true audit and an IRS return would show a lot of information.  They would have to report the revenue they receive from students or their parents for field trips and student body activities.  But they aren’t.  No one can see this information.  If they get such a huge amount of money from these activities, they should be fully transparent and post their revenue stream on their website.  But they don’t.

On their monthly budget sheets they are required by state law to post on their website each month, they list student body activities as part of their operating budget.  Operating funds are part of state and local funded expenses.  If they have students pay for field trips and they write a big fat check to, say, the Bermuda Institute, and put that as an expense in their budget, that means they are getting these funds from the state and local funds.  Granted, their budgeted amount for student body activities in FY2016 was $300,000 as shown in the below pictures.  But their budget forms the picture of how much money they will need to operate as a school.  This is the spine of any charter school or district’s operations.

Newark Charter School 7/2015 Monthly Budget: Revenue

NCS715Budget

In the above picture, we see the school’s projected revenue for FY2016 as of July, 2015.

Newark Charter School 7/2015 Budget: Expenses

NCS715Budget2

Above, we see their projected expenses. Note the Student Body Activities amount of $300,000.

Newark Charter School 6/2016 Budget: Revenue

NCS616Budget

By June of 2016, their revenues looked completely different.

Newark Charter School 6/2016 Budget: Expenses

NCS616Budget2

Their expenses, especially Student Body Activities went up as well, mushrooming to over $445,000. This was $145,000 over what they budgeted for this category.  As if it was almost planned…

This brings us back to the current situation at the Delaware Auditor of Accounts office.  As I wrote earlier this week, there is some shady business going on there.  Kathleen Davies had my tip about NCS and Academy of Dover’s lack of IRS 990 forms and I believe it was an active investigation.  I know this because I received a call from John Fluharty about it in March, two months before Davies was put on “leave”.  He wouldn’t call to get information if it was not active.  If that office was leaning towards NCS needing to put up their 990 tax forms, invariably the inspection would lean towards “Why aren’t they putting up this information?” which could further lead towards a full investigation of their finances.

Senator David Sokola has been the Senator for the 8th District since 1995. This district surrounds most of Newark Charter School’s five mile radius.  Sokola helped in the creation of Newark Charter School.  He even joined their board for a stint in the mid 00’s while also an elected Senator, which is perfectly legal in Delaware.  But in his stint as a Delaware Senator, he has essentially served as a buffer between the school and true accountability.  Sokola is a senior-ranking Delaware Senator.  Not only is he the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, but he is also the Senate Chair on the Bond Committee.  If you look at a lot of the legislation about education he writes, every single bill has benefitted Newark Charter School in some way.  I’m sure if you look at some of his non-education legislation, including ones about land usage, those would benefit the school as well.  This isn’t the first time I’ve thought out loud about Senator Sokola.

In my fictional novel I am working on about Kathleen Davies and whodunit, I would put Senator Sokola as the lead suspect in this mystery.  He has the means, the motivation, and the pull to get something like this done.  He is well-connected with the Delaware Charter Schools Network and Rodel.  Since he is also in tandem with many House and Senate Republicans over charter schools, it would stand to reason he would lend his ear to them and get a fire going.  As well, he has a very cozy relationship with the State Board of Education Executive Director Donna Johnson and Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Steven Godowsky.  As the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, this is to be expected, but he always seems to be able to get support for his bills that do more damage to public education.  His connections with the Delaware Charter School Network go back many years.  He has frequently been involved with the Rodel Foundation sponsored Vision Coalition.  He is a firm believer in standardized testing and teachers being judged by those scores.  He put in very damaging amendments to House Bill 199 a couple months ago based in large part on feedback he received from his beloved Newark Charter School.  He is no friend to traditional school districts.  As the Newark Charter School legislative cheerleader, he can count on votes from his constituents who have students attending that school.  With a student population of over 2,000 students, that is a lot of votes.  In exchange, he allows them to operate with no transparency, accountability, or oversight through his legislative input.

Now some will say Tom Wagner is a staunch Republican and Sokola is a Progressive Democrat!  How could Sokola convince Wagner to do anything?  He didn’t have to.  Somehow, someway, the “whistleblowers” in the Davies complaint to the Office of Management and Budget were told exactly how to get Davies.  This idea had to come from someone with advanced knowledge of the rules and regulations of the Delaware accounting procedures and policies.  We know Newark Charter School knew about what was going on with Davies and her “administrative leave” from the Auditor of Accounts office based on what they put in their June Board meeting notes:

NCSTravelReimbursementBdMtg

In Delaware politics and education, there is no such thing as a coincidence.  The fact Schlossberg would bring this up a month after Davies was put on leave is very telling in my opinion.  We know the Delaware DOE already knew about all this because one of their employees told me about in late May.  So if that person would tell an education blogger, it would stand to reason many in the state knew as well.  NCS, in their board meeting minutes over the past year, has been very diligent about discussing legislation that could impact charter schools (especially the charter school audit bills).  But to write about how Davies was specifically put on leave, something I wasn’t even aware of until last Saturday when the News Journal came out with their article, would suggest having very intimate knowledge of the case against Davies.  So much so that they wanted to adopt this into their board policies.  The News Journal article never even specified if their information was coming from their “sources” or the Office of Management and Budget.

NCS connection with Sokola would give them instant knowledge of anything going on at a statewide level.  But this has always been my big question about the charter school audit bills: why were they fighting them so hard?  Especially Newark Charter School?  Some answers can actually be found in the oddest of places.  Newark Charter School’s selected auditor for their annual required audits is Barbacane Thornton and Company.  As seen below, they do this work for many Delaware charter schools.

BarbacaneThorntonFY2016

In looking at this list, I see quite a few charter schools who have landed in hot water at the State Auditor of Accounts office: Academy of Dover, Delaware Military Academy, and Providence Creek Academy.  One of their lead accountants, Pam Baker, testified in opposition to Kim William’s third attempt at a charter school audit bill, House Bill 186, in June of 2015:

She said this bill takes away responsibility from the board to select (an) independent auditor and takes away the opportunity for charter schools to do that effectively.

Now why would someone who is hired by many of these schools to do their audits put her neck out there for schools she knew were under investigation?  As well, her statement basically said “they may not be able to hire the firm I work for” which would show a clear conflict of interest in her sworn testimony.  A lobbyist for the Delaware Charter Schools Network even spoke on behalf of the business office of Newark Charter School at this meeting:

Nitin Rao, DCSN, spoke on behalf of the business manager of Newark Charter School in opposition to the bill.

For a school that seems to have a great deal of extra revenue after their year-end expenditures each year, this was a head-scratcher.  Like many who felt the same way, I questioned whether the charters opposition stemmed from the cost involved with the legislation or more what these new audits through this legislation would find.

But what Kathleen Davies said at this meeting was the essential problem with the charter school audits in Delaware:

Kathleen Davies, Chief Audit Administrator at AOA, said AOA does not have any firms under contract that conducted any charter school audits. She rebutted that the IRS filing mentioned by Pam Baker is a non-audit service and those fees are not part of the audit work. She said there have been a lot of terms thrown around and the only requirement for charter schools, with regard to oversight, is GAP compliant financial statements. She said there are currently seven investigations on charter schools underway because of mismanagement of funds. She said fraud and abuse were never brought to anyone’s attention for these seven schools. She said AOA has subpoena power and a firm, under AOA contract, can be used to address the issues found. She said those seven charter schools got a “clean bill of health” with no findings and no body to identify issues. She said this bill would change that.

Notice Davies brought up IRS filings.  As we all know, Newark Charter School doesn’t even have to file with the IRS because of their “special” exemptions.  IRS filings require all sources of revenue.  Which brings us back to Student Body Activities.

If student body activity expenses are an item in the school operating budget, they are counting on this money from the state and local funds.  But the issue comes in when these student body activities are pre-planned field trips and events that students or parents pay for prior to the actual event.  I can certainly buy the notion that teachers or the school would have to pay for many of these events ahead of time.  And as Head of School Greg Meece is the only person in the school who has a state procurement card, teachers or the school would have to pay out of pocket ahead of time for these activities.  But to spend $445,000 in student body activities for a school population of over 2,100 students, there would be a bucket load of revenue coming in from field trip money.  This is the revenue we are not able to see.  At all.  Anywhere.  Trust me, I looked.  All over the place.  There is nothing on Delaware Online Checkbook showing any such revenue.  If this revenue was put back into the school, we would see it as negative amounts in their expenses.  But they don’t exist through the state accounting system.  Therefore, they are only showing the expenses of student body activities and not the income that comes back as revenue to offset those costs.

Without knowing exactly where they put that revenue, I can safely guess where they put the entire $449,575.29 they reported as “student body activity” on Delaware Online Checkbook.  They used that revenue to pay for the remaining amounts on two capital building projects they contracted with one company to perform.

In the fall of 2014,  Newark Charter School started talking about building a Performing Arts Center and a STEM Laboratory Suite.  Since these are capital projects, not minor capital improvements, they would not be able to get funding from the state as dictated by the Delaware charter school law.

MinorCapitalFundingLaw

So even though Newark Charter School received $273,447 from the General Assembly for FY2016 for minor capital improvements, they could not use it for projects of this magnitude and scope.  Since the Performing Arts Center would be an entirely new addition to the school and the STEM labs would require structural change to the building, these two projects did not qualify for minor capital funding.  So how much capital funding would they need to obtain for this project?  Quite a bit according to their application for the Delaware Charter School Performance fund in the Spring of 2015.

NCSCharterSchoolPerfFundAppl2015

As part of Delaware charter school law, NCS had to submit a minor modification request for these projects.  They did so, and it was approved by then Secretary of Education Mark Murphy according to their December 2014 board minutes:

NCSDec2014BoardMinutesMinorMod

But in their application for the minor modification, Meece either greatly underestimated the costs for the project or later added more bells and whistles to the whole thing.  Because the original projected amount was $853,088.  At no point in time did NCS resubmit a new minor modification based on the financial difference between the original amount and the projected amount, a difference of $636,061.  But the section of the application where it asked about financial impact on the school was very enlightening:

NCSMinorModApplication2014

Greg Meece and Joanne Schlossberg, their Business Manager, knew they would have to get a lot of money for this project and began working the foundation circuit.  They were able to obtain funding from the Longwood Foundation ($500,000), the Welfare Foundation ($125,000), and the Calder Foundation ($79,000).  They applied for $400,000 in the Charter School Performance Fund (even though the maximum amount any Delaware charter school could win was $250,000 that year).  They received the maximum amount of $250,000.  Even though they were able to generate a lot of funding in a very short time, they were still short from the budgeted amount.   By $535,149.00.  Since construction was already underway by this point, the school had to raise the remaining  funds for the projects or  use funds from their reserves.

In June of FY2015, the board’s treasurer stated the school was $668,000 favorable for revenue “due to the annual fund and pledges from the capital campaign”.  The school received the Longwood Foundation grant in June of 2015.  In July of FY2016, the treasurer stated the school was not $1,283,000 favorable in state revenue due to the grant funds received from the Longwood Foundation and the Welfare Foundation in FY2015.  As well as the other grants they received in June of 2015, they received the $79,000 grant from the Calder Foundation and $250,000 from the charter school performance fund in July of 2015.  At their September 2015 board meeting, it was announced the funds received from the Longwood and Welfare Foundations were received in FY2015 so they could not put this as revenue in FY2016 even though they budgeted these funds for FY2016.  This caused their revenue to be unfavorable in the amount of $961,000.  But they were going to amend their budget to make this happen.  While a lot of these revenue figures are all over the map, it is important to look at the $668,000 talked about in June of 2015.  If the school already had pledged amounts coming from the Longwood and Welfare Foundations totaling $625,000.00, it would stand to reason their remaining “favorable revenue” came from their annual fund.  Which leaves $43,000 they had remaining from their FY2015 annual fund which they committed towards this project.  This reduced their shortage for the two projects to $449,149.00.

Earlier this week, I posted an article about Student Body Activity funds and questioned why Newark Charter School is showing such a high amount for this.  Based on this article, I showed how a FOIA received by a Delaware citizen showed NCS as spending $445,000 in student body activities as of 7/2/16.  As of 8/2/16, that amount increased to $449,557.29.  Now if you notice the projected amount for the STEM Laboratory Suite in the above picture, that amount is for $449,588.  Almost the exact same amount as the expenditures for their student body activity.  If this fund is meant for just student body activities, they should not be going towards capital costs, such as the creation of a STEM Laboratory and a Fine & Performing Arts Center.  Delaware law is very specific about this and the business manager and Greg Meece are well aware of these laws.

How much did these two projects actually cost Newark Charter School? $1,512,599.08.  They contracted with Daystar Sills, a construction company in Delaware.  The difference between the projected amount in their charter school performance fund application and the actual amount was $23,540.08.

NCSBldgImprovDaystarSills

If you add up the following figures:

$43,000 from their FY2015 Annual Fund

$500,000 from Longwood Foundation

$125,000 from Welfare Foundation

$79,000 from Calder Foundation

$250,000 from Charter School Performance Fund

The total amount is $997,000.  Which leaves them very short of the eventual $1,512,599.08 those projects were going to cost.  We know, as of  their November 2014 board minutes, the school received $64,000 from an auction they had.  This was their 11th annual auction.

NCS1114boardmtg

They had their next auction in November of 2015, but at their November 2015 board meeting, Greg Meece did not give an amount of how much they generated.

NCSNov2015BoardMinutes

By not publicly mentioning how much they received in their FY2016 auction, they could leave this open for future use as they saw fit.  Since there was never a capital fund amount given, we would have to assume it was close to the amountselaw they received in prior years.

Since they are so short on this capital project, and we don’t know where the money is coming from to pay for the rest, watch what happens when we add this to the $997,000:

$449,575.29 from FY2016 Student Body Activity expenses

We now get a grand total of $1,446,575.29.  They are still short $66,023.79.  We can safely guess where those funds came from based on their FY2015 Audit with Barbacane Thornton & Company:

NCSFY2015AuditStmntOfNetPosition

Note how NCS received $77,226 in pledged monetary support in FY2014 and $67,812 in FY2015.  It would stand to reason they used their FY2016 pledge amount to supplement the rest of this bill from Daystar Sills.  The school could never use extra local reserve funds because those funds could only be used for operating expenses or minor capital improvements based on Delaware charter school law.  They could not be used for capital building projects.  Meece knew this, and Mark Murphy should have.  The fact that Meece applied for a minor modification for this huge project and didn’t know the true estimate of the costs, didn’t have the capital funding when he applied for it, and operated on the assumption that Mark Murphy would just take it at face value that the school could always fall back on local appropriation reserves speaks volumes about the arrogance behind Newark Charter School.  Meece and Schlossberg, in my opinion, knew exactly what they were doing with all of this.  They knew the project would be short and planned ahead of time.

In June of 2015, they budgeted $300,000 for student body activity.  This would have been a very good guess on the amount they would need to pay towards the final bill for this project.  Because at that time, they somehow thought they could get $400,000 from the charter school performance fund.  This turned out to be a huge error on their part because they had to somehow find a way to get another roughly $150,000 when they only got $250,000 from the performance fund.  This is how their Student Body Activity expense amount went from a budgeted $300,000 to a little bit shy of $450,000.  They actually planned for this amount, in my humble opinion, based on how the project was turning out.  Once they realized their error with the performance fund, they got to work.

To use a shell student body activity account to pay for Capital projects is an obvious violation of Delaware state law.  To never report the revenue they received from parents and students should be a violation of state law.  To use parents and students money to disguise illegal activity is fraud, pure and simple.  Because I am not a judge or a jury, I cannot say with 100% certainty this is exactly what Newark Charter School did.  If I were writing a fictional novel, either as part of the Kathleen Davies whodunit or a new one on Newark Charter School, because no criminal charges or official allegations of wrongdoing have been laid out by any type of legal authority in the State of Delaware, I would say there is most likely a strong connection to this activity going on at Newark Charter School and Kathleen Davies eventually being put on leave.  I believe NCS knew there was an investigation going on with their IRS 990 forms.  I believe they knew their exemption was a glass house that would eventually have many stones thrown at it.  While I don’t think it was a case of Senator David Sokola going to Tom Wagner and saying “You have to stop this audit inspection cause my buddies at Newark Charter School could get in trouble”, I do believe the goal was to slam the character of Kathleen Davies.  By doing so, it would undermine the audit inspections she already completed (the September 30th Enrollment Count inspection and the Millville Fire Department audits which were either pulled or redone).  As well, it would cast a doubt on audits already underway.  I believe the right amount of pressure was put on Tom Wagner by the Office of Management and Budget to get Davies put on leave.  Aside from the false accusations of Davies abusing the travel reimbursement accounts by not using the state procurement card, there had to be a confrontation to push Wagner towards that decision.  The accusations by itself wouldn’t be enough.  There had to be that one final straw.

The Delaware Department of Education wanted the September 30th Enrollment Count done.  When the report came out, they disagreed with Davies recommendations in the report.  They complained to Wagner.  This I do know.  What happened next, I can only surmise.  Wagner wanted Davies to change the report.  Davies said no.  Boom.

Once Davies was gone, Wagner could kill the petty cash audit which would have shown charter schools abusing the petty cash policies in the state.  He did that and instead sent letters to all the charter schools that violated the petty cash policy with no ability for the public to see those letters.  He pulled the September 30th audit.  He took out Davies letter at the end of the Millville Fire Department inspection report.  We don’t know what is happening with the Newark Charter School IRS 990 Form Audit Inspection.   I have to assume we will never see it.  Unless someone gives a very good reason why the school would strongly benefit from not filing such a tax return.  Someone would have to show how they hide things financially so they can get what they want.  Then Tom Wagner’s office would have to act fast and get into that school and investigate ALL of their finances, from top to bottom.  He would want to subpoena all of their bank deposits.  He would have to turn the information over to the Delaware Attorney General’s office and in an ideal world, that office would act on that information.  If any federal funds were found to be abused in the findings of this investigation, the FBI would have to get involved.  Since this school has been around fifteen years with no IRS tax filings, I would assume the FBI would be very interested in how much revenue this Delaware corporation has received and would want to account for every single penny going in or out of the school.  If the FBI didn’t have anything to go on, I would have to imagine the State of Delaware would based on the information they would get out of their investigation.  Not to mention the very shady and scummy enrollment practices this school has had over the years in their attempts to have perfect high-stakes test-takers.  In their isolated and non-transparent world with a five-mile radius around the flagpole at their high school, some of which goes into a neighboring state, but determines what students can or can’t go to their elite wannabe private school.  Where parents can afford to pay for extravagant field trips because they don’t have to use those funds for a private school because this school is so perfect.  In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have this.  But this isn’t an ideal world.  This is Delaware.

I have no doubt Newark Charter School is not alone in Delaware with these kinds of financial games.  I think it has happened quite a bit, and not just in charter schools.  I think it has happened in our districts as well.  Maybe not the same chess move NCS pulled on this one, but other moves designed to give an advantage of some sort.  We’ve seen it before and we will see it again.  Until someone turns the board over and makes new rules for the game.  That is what needs to happen in Delaware.  This is my mission and others have this vision as well.  We keep waiting for someone in power to step up and do the right thing.   All we hear is silence.

To see the full FY2015 audit for Newark Charter School, please see the below report:

State Board of Education Approved Modifications For DAPSS, DE Design-Lab, First State Montessori, & Prestige Academy

The Delaware State Board of Education approved all the major modifications that came across their table last Thursday. The charter schools involved either raised or lowered their enrollment numbers with their modification applications.

Delaware Academy of Public Safety & Security got rid of 8th grade and lowered their enrollment numbers to 330 for the 2016-2017 school year with increased enrollment of 375 by the 2020-2021 school year to keep them as a 9th to 12th grade school.

Delaware Design-Lab High School also lowered their enrollment, but they will be adding 11th grade next year as per their original charter application. Their growth is a bit more aggressive with 350 students in 9th-11th grade for 2016-2017, 475 for 2017-2018 when they add 12th grade, and up to 600 by 2019-2020.

First State Montessori Academy, who will be taking over the former Delaware Met building next door to them, was approved to add a middle school with students in 6th to 8th grade. Their enrollment for 2016-2017 must be 430 students in Kindergarten to 6th grade and by 2021-2022 they must have 654 students in K-8.

Prestige Academy is now a 6th to 8th grade school instead of a 5th to 8th middle school, and their enrollment has been lowered to 240 from the 2016-2017 school year and every year proceeding that.

Odyssey Charter School had a modification approved without the consent of the State Board of Education since it was considered a minor modifications. Their modification surrounded enrollment with increases less than 15%. Odyssey’s approved enrollment includes their high school which will make them a K-12 school by the 2019-2020 year. Both Kuumba Academy and Great Oaks Charter School had similar minor modifications approved in February by Secretary Godowsky with no grade level changes.

With the charter moratorium for Wilmington still in effect from House Bill 56, no new charter schools can apply for a Wilmington location. But that doesn’t seem to stop the existing schools from tweaking their numbers. Many First State Montessori parents wanted the change, but some folks submitted public comment around their enrollment preferences and were worried this could create more bias in the school. Prestige and Delaware Design-Lab were both on probation due to low enrollment figures last year. Their will still be many charter school enrollment changes next school year based on these approvals. More students in flux around Wilmington is not, in my opinion, a way to stabilize the situation with constant student movement in the city. If the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission redistricting plan is approved by the 148 General Assembly, it will create even more flux with students as Christina’s Wilmington schools become a part of the Red Clay Consolidated School District.

Charter Modification Update: DAPSS, DE Design-Lab & First State Montessori Get Thumbs Up From DOE

Grand_Central_Station_Inside

Three of the five charters that submitted major modification requests to the Charter School Office at the Delaware Department of Education got the green light today.  The Charter School Accountability Committee held their final meetings with the three schools today.  All three received a recommendation of approval from the committee.  The State Board of Education will make the final decision at their March meeting.

Two other schools that submitted major mods have meetings tomorrow with the CSAC.  Prestige Academy has their last meeting and Academia Antonia Alonso has their first.  Another school, Odyssey Charter School, submitted a minor modification for enrollment changes but Secretary of Education Godowsky exercised his authority to give them the CSAC treatment.  They also meet with the CSAC tomorrow.

Should the State Board approve all these modifications, many students will be in flux next year.  First State Montessori will increase their enrollment significantly.  Two other charters submitted minor modifications for up to 15% increases: Great Oaks and Kuumba Academy.  They only need Secretary approval and not the State Board.  Prestige, Delaware Academy of Public Safety and Security, and Delaware Design-Lab will decrease their enrollment.  Academia Antonia Alonso will actually move their location from the Community Education Building.  This is on top of Delaware Met closing in January and Delaware College Prep closing at the end of this school year.  In December, Red Clay’s board approved a modification for Delaware Military Academy to start increasing their enrollment in the 2017-2018 school year.  Who needs a freeze on new charter applications when the Delaware DOE becomes Grand Central Station for Wilmington charter school students?

Odyssey’s Future Tied To Their Bondholder

Odyssey Charter School looks to have their hands tied by their current bondholder.  If they do not score well on their next financial performance framework, the bondholder will step in to intervene at the school.  The school submitted a minor modification request to increase their numbers by a shade below 15%.  Normally, that type of request doesn’t require a full-blown Charter School Accountability Committee (CSAC) hearing, but it is at the Secretary of Education’s discretion.  Godowsky wanted that, and here we are.  Who did the school call to help them out with their struggling money issues?  Below is the initial report from CSAC.

Downtown First State Montessori & Great Oaks Look To Expand While DAPSS & Prestige Academy Look To Shrink

Four charter schools in New Castle County submitted requests for modifications last month.  Two are looking to get bigger while two want to get smaller.  The two that want to expand are in the heart of downtown Wilmington while the two that want to shrink do not have the benefit of having the key downtown locations.

FIRST STATE MONTESSORI ACADEMY

First State Montessori Academy wants to become a K-8 school in 2016-2017.  The shocking news in all this?  They wrote about their intention to use the building Delaware Met resides in until January 22nd.  The location is actually perfect if their modification request is approved.  Aside from boiler issues, the building is already conducive to older students.  The school is currently K-8, but they found they were losing a lot of 5th grade students so they could acclimate to the middle school environment.  By going through 8th grade, this would eliminate that problem.

GREAT OAKS CHARTER SCHOOL

Great Oaks submitted a minor modification request to increase their enrollment by 25 students for the 2016-2017 school year.  Their request shows that interim Smarter Balanced Assessments given to students are showing modest gains for students.  The school is reporting NO violent incidents at the school whatsoever.  In their application, Great Oaks indicated they are only using half of their designated space in the Community Education Building in downtown Wilmington.

DELAWARE ACADEMY OF PUBLIC SAFETY & SECURITY (DAPSS)

The Delaware Academy of Public Safety & Security submitted a major modification request to the Delaware Department of Education Charter School Office on December 10th.  They want to decrease their enrollment from their charter approved 480 students to 375 students, a reduction of 22%.  What makes this very interesting is the fact other charter schools in Delaware have been placed on formal review for not having 80% of their approved enrollment in their charter. DAPSS has not met their approved enrollment figures for the past two years.  The DOE looks at formal review status for charters if they fall below 80% of their approved enrollment based on the financial viability of the school.

According to the information submitted by DAPSS to the Charter School Office, their enrollment last year was 363, which put them at 76% of their approved enrollment.  This year, the school lost 60 students and currently stand at 303 students.  This is less than 64% of their approved enrollment.  My biggest question would be why they were not put on formal review last year or this year based on this information.

For their performance framework, the school was labeled as “Does Not Meet Standard” for their organizational framework three out of the last four academic years, in 11-12, 12-13, and 14-15.  For their financial framework, they were labeled as “Falls Far Below Standard” in 11-12, 13-14, and 14-15 and “Does Not Meet Standard” in 12-13.  Once again, they have not been placed on formal review for their very negative ratings on the State Board of Education approved Charter School Performance Framework.

PRESTIGE ACADEMY

Like DAPSS, Prestige Academy wants to lower their enrollment, but they were put on formal review for this last spring along with academic concerns.  As the only all-boys charter school in Delaware, Prestige Academy appears to be have been held under the microscope by the DOE quite a bit compared to DAPSS.  The charter school is looking to drop 5th grade and would be middle school only, serving students in 6th-8th grade.

IMPACTS

All of this charter shuffling, if approved by Secretary of Education Dr. Steven Godowsky and the State Board of Education at their March meeting, comes at a curious time.  With the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission and the redistricting of all Wilmington students (aside from Colonial) into Red Clay, this is a lot of movement for one city’s students.  While House Bill 56 put a freeze on new charter applications in Wilmington for a few years or until the state can come up with a plan for all the charters in Wilmington, the existing ones look to capitalize on this and change their enrollment numbers to maximize the benefits for their growth (or shrinkage in two of these situations).  It is actually very strategic on their part.

The downside to this would be the effect it has on the surrounding school districts, especially in the case of First State Montessori Academy.  As a school that gets the bulk of their students from Christina School District, this could have a very debilitating effect on the already struggling school district.  It is my contention House Bill 56 should have put a freeze on modifications like this as well, but at the same time preventing any charter school from going on formal review for low enrollment due to so many changes going on in Wilmington education.

The 920 N. French Street building is certainly up for grabs.  I wrote a post last month that Las Americas ASPIRA Academy was looking at the location last month as well.  First State Montessori would be using part of the building next year.  Innovative Schools would be in some deep financial straits if they didn’t line up a tenant for this property right away.  I have to wonder how that works with rent for Delaware Met.  I assume they signed their sub-lease with Innovative Schools for a designated time period.  Will that contract cease as of January 22nd or in the weeks afterwards as the school closes down operations or are they on the hook until June 30th?

Only one new approved charter school will open up in the 2016-2017 school year, Delaware STEM Academy.  They will begin with 150 9th grade students, hoping to reach 600 students a few years after that.  I am not aware of their current enrollment figures for their first year.  The school choice window closes tomorrow.  As required by state law, the school will need to be at 80% of their enrollment by April 1st to prevent a formal review for financial viability.  While they escaped from formal review status last Spring, Delaware Design-Lab High School and Freire Charter School had major issues with their enrollment figures.  They eventually met the 80% figures but not without some major angst along the way.  Wilmington is a hot mess with far too many schools, in my humble opinion.  I would have to think this was not State Rep. Charles Potter’s intention when he submitted the legislation for the charter school application freeze…

Why Doesn’t The Delaware State Board of Education & The Secretary of Education Approve Minor Modifications?

The Delaware DOE must love charter school minor modifications.  An approved charter school can request a one-year delay or even choose an alternative educator evaluation system with a minor modification request.  But why doesn’t the State Board of Education have any say with minor modifications?  They used to.  This was changed with Regulation 497, which went into effect on November 1st, 2013.  Prior to that, both the Secretary and the State Board had approval authority.  The Secretary would make their decision and then submit it to the State Board for concurrence:

Decisions for minor modifications to a charter may be decided by the Secretary[, with the

concurrence of the State Board of Education,] within 30 working days from the date the

application was filed, unless the timeline is waived by mutual agreement of the Secretary and the

applicant, or in any case where the Secretary, in the sole discretion of the Secretary, deems that it

would be beneficial to either refer the matter to the Accountability Committee or to seek advice

from the State Board prior to deciding the matter.

Regulation 497 did away with this.  It allowed Mark Murphy, in one of his final acts, to approve many charter schools for an alternate teacher evaluation.  It also allowed charter schools that were approved to get a one-year delay in opening to get a stay of formal review by Mark Murphy.  The Delaware Met used this “get of jail free card” in April 2014 because they didn’t have sufficient enrollment to open by August, 2014.  The Secretary is one person.  One person should not be deciding “minor” decisions which can have a huge impact on students and staff at a school.  I think the 148th General Assembly needs to clearly definite what is considered a major and minor modification for a charter during their next legislative session.  And they should also realign this so the State Board of Education also has to approve both a major AND minor modification.