D.C. Board of Education Orders Closing of Charter School in NE
By Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page B05
The District school board last night voted to close the Village Learning Center Public Charter School, saying that its finances were mismanaged and that it suffered other problems.
At a special meeting, the board voted 5 to 1 to shutter the school. Three board members were absent.
Board members asked officials with D.C. public schools and the city's charter schools to help relocate Village's 460 students, who attended kindergarten through 12th grade at two campuses in Northeast Washington. Classes at Village have ended for the school year.
In deciding to close the school, several board members cited a city audit that said the school made credit card charges for clothing and gifts, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on leased space it did not occupy and failed to document loan repayments.
Board of Education members also said that if Village remained open, it would have to spend too much of its operating budget next year to pay off debt, meaning that less money would be available for students. "That's just not fair," said school board member Julie Mikuta (District 1).
School board member Robin B. Martin, a mayoral appointee, said the school's trustees should have spotted indications of financial mismanagement years ago. "Warning signs came year after year after year," Martin said.
Parents and other supporters of the school who attended last night's meeting said they were outraged by the decision.
Joseph Clair, vice chairman of the school's board of trustees, said that Village would "rise again" and that he and his colleagues would meet to discuss their options. Clair and other officials with Village said the board of trustees included many new members who were committed to fixing the problems. Given more time, they said, the school could have thrived.
"It's a very dark day for the education of kids in the District of Columbia," Clair said. "I don't see the problems at Village Learning Center as any worse than the problems in D.C. public schools."
Juleta Contee, whose 13-year-old daughter attended Village, called the board's vote a "disgrace."
"I don't know what I'm going to do now," Contee said. "Just thinking about putting her in another school is devastating. . . . There's no other school that's going to be there for these children."
In May, the school board voted to begin the closure process for Village, which had been on probation for months after various problems surfaced.
Village Learning Center, which opened in 1998, was one of 37 charter schools on 41 campuses in the city. The schools, which receive funding from the District, operate independently of the school system. But because the school board issued the school's charter, it is responsible for monitoring whether the school follows the law and meets its objectives.
A resolution approved by the school board last night cited the city audit, among other factors. That report, which examined the school's finances from October 1998 through November 2003, said that the school had amassed a deficit of $895,567 and that the Internal Revenue Service had imposed fines and penalties of $265,729 against the school for its late filing and payment of withholding taxes in 2001.
Among other findings, the audit said $156,424 had been paid to the school's executive director and family members, as well as to a hired financial consultant. The executive director indicated that the payments were to repay loans made to the school, the audit said.
The board also cited the school's failure to obtain accreditation within five years of opening, as required by law. One board member said reports indicated that some teachers were not up to par.
At a hearing yesterday afternoon, representatives of Village disputed some of the audit's findings and said they had taken steps to improve management. They said that money had been spent on clothing for student activities and that gifts were purchased to reward the staff. They said no money was stolen.
In addition to Mikuta and Martin, voting to close the school were President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Tommy Wells (District 3) and mayoral appointee Carolyn N. Graham. William Lockridge (District 4) voted against closing the school, saying it should be given a chance to hire new management and solve its problems.
Absent from the vote were Dwight E. Singleton (District 2) and mayoral appointees Carrie L. Thornhill and Mirian Saez.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company