More than 400 D.C. students are scrambling to find a place to attend classes this fall after their year-old public charter school closed for good Friday, with the co-principals fired by the school's Board of Trustees for alleged financial mismanagement.
The chairman of the governing body of the Young Technocrats Math and Science Public Charter Laboratory School said the principals' actions left the school deeply in debt and unable to fight an attempt by the elected D.C. Board of Education to revoke its charter.
"We're not even sure" how much the school owes, Board of Trustees Chairman George R. Carruthers said. "We're still in the process of trying to figure it out."
The co-principals, Wali Williams and Maisha Washington, who have defended their school and their own performance in past interviews, could not be reached for comment yesterday. Carruthers said Williams and Washington are trying to retain control of the school and have formed a new trustees board, which is not permitted under charter rules.
Students can learn about other charter schools that may have space in the fall at a meeting at 11 a.m. Saturday at Young Technocrats, First and T streets NE. Students also can return to their neighborhood public schools. Most of about 60 youngsters who were attending summer school already have enrolled elsewhere, Carruthers said.
The decision to close illustrates one of the risks of public charter schools, which are funded with public tax dollars but are legally permitted to operate independent of the public school bureaucracy.
The schools are monitored by their governing bodies and by one of two D.C. chartering boards. If they have serious problems, such as financial woes or low attendance, they can be shut by the board that approved their charter or can close on their own.
Of the 20 charter schools that opened in the District in the last three years, Young Technocrats is the second to close. The Marcus Garvey Public Charter School closed after its charter was revoked a year ago by the school board.
Most of the remaining schools are receiving praise from parents and charter school advocates. As many as nine more schools are set to open in the fall, for a total enrollment of as many as 7,000, making the District's charter movement the fastest growing in the country.
But the World Public Charter School in Northwest Washington remains on probation with the Board of Education. And a nasty dispute between the co-founders of the Washington Math Science Technology Public Charter School has prompted an investigation by the Public Charter School Board, which along with the Board of Education awards charters to schools and then monitors them.
Although the public charter board has been praised for helping schools succeed, the school board has been accused of failing to provide enough help to the schools it charters.
Carruthers said neither his board nor the school co-principals, who had run a much smaller private school before turning it into a charter, realized how complicated it would be to live up to the terms of the charter they proposed and were granted by the school board.
"I know that I didn't really understand what I was getting into a year ago," Carruthers said. He proposed "something like an in-service training course for those who are accepted as charter schools . . . so they don't make mistakes that they can't make up for later."
Envisioned as a comprehensive science-and-technology curriculum for prekindergarten through grade 12, Young Technocrats struggled even before its opening in September. It was even unclear how many students attended, with estimates ranging from 400 to 460.
The school leased the former Langley School just a month before opening day and found the building completed looted, without electricity, running water, a good roof or working restrooms.
Money intended to pay salaries went for emergency repairs, and contractors were hired without going through the appropriate bidding process. Parents complained of lax security and poor academics. Teachers and staff members left because they hadn't been paid.
In April, the school board placed Young Technocrats on probation and last month proposed revoking the school's charter.