Options to remain open next year

The D.C. Public Charter School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to allow Options Public Charter School, a school for at-risk youths that had faced closure for allegations of fiscal mismanagement, to remain open through the 2014-2015 school year.

The board also voted to enter into an agreement with Josh Kern, Options’ court-appointed receiver, to continue overseeing the school during that time.

The move ends, at least temporarily, a long period of uncertainty and instability for the school’s nearly 400 middle- and high school students, most of whom have severe disabilities, have been expelled from other schools or struggled with homelessness and other such risk factors.

“It’s been very tough,” said Charles Vincent, the executive director of Options. “I’m glad to see the school is open because it is best for the kids.”

Options was thrust into turmoil in October when the D.C. attorney general filed a lawsuit alleging that its three top managers had diverted millions of taxpayer dollars to two for-profit companies they owned.

A judge appointed Kern to oversee Options and the charter school board voted to begin charter revocation proceedings, prompting an outcry from Options students and parents who said they had nowhere else to go.

Kern explored whether the school could stay open under the operation of D.C. public schools, but he and DCPS could not reach an agreement to do that in a way that met the city’s legal requirements, according to District lawyers. DCPS officials also said their neighborhood schools did not have the capacity to take on Options’ high-needs students.

Charter board officials were persuaded that it would be best for Options to stay open under Kern, who plans to hire an executive director to manage day-to-day operations. The one-year extension will give the city more time to figure out how to adequately serve Options students over the longer term, board members said.

“This process has illuminated an urgent need within the city to address the educational needs of these 370 students and other students in the city who have comparable educational needs,” said board member Don Soifer.

Under federal law, students with disabilities are guaranteed placement in a private school if there is no way for them to appropriately served in a public school. But the possibility of sending Options students to private schools has not been discussed in public charter board meetings and court hearings.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has pushed to shrink the number of students with disabilities who go to private school at taxpayer expense and often speaks of the tens of millions of dollars that have been saved through that effort.

Tami Lewis, who works on special education issues for the charter board, said that the expense was not a factor in determining what should happen with Options students. “Cost is not the issue here,” she said.

Lewis said the quality of private schools that serve students with disabilities is uneven, and that moving at-risk students to a new school can be so disruptive that they drop out of school altogether.

“I think there’s almost this fantasy that if we put these children in non-publics, it would be a magic pill,” Lewis said. “That is not the case.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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