The finances of one of the first charter schools in the nation’s capital have grown so dire that its survival is threatened and its ability to pay teachers in doubt, a financial analysis shows.
Washington Mathematics Science Technology Public Charter High School — founded in 1998 soon after charter schools were allowed in the District — could lose its license if it does not present a convincing plan to regulators demonstrating how it will remain financially viable.
The agency that oversees such institutions, the D.C. Public Charter School Board, voted unanimously at an emergency meeting Monday to begin the process of stripping the school of its operating license. Washington Mathematics, with 228 students in grades nine through 12, has experienced dwindling enrollment over the past five years, accelerating its financial demise.
The charter school has 15 days to seek a public hearing before the oversight board holds a final vote on whether to revoke the school’s operating license. Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that are privately run.
Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter school board, said if the panel votes to revoke the charter — or if the school decides to voluntarily relinquish its license — the board will loan it money to remain open for the rest of the academic year.
While a drastic move, the revocation of a charter is far from unprecedented. The District has shuttered nearly two dozen small and large charter schools since 2012, although some have been able to remain open with new leadership.
In January, the board voted to shut down Excel Academy because of poor academic performance and because the school showed scant evidence of improvement. D.C. Public Schools, the traditional public system, reached an agreement to take over the 700-student all-girls school in Southeast Washington.
The troubles for Washington Mathematics emerge at a time when the traditional school system is competing to keep families from turning to charters. As of October, D.C. Public Schools counted 48,144 students, compared with 43,393 in charter schools.
Attorney Stephen Marcus, who represents Washington Mathematics, said Monday that the school has plans to sell its building on the 1900 block of Bladensburg Road NE in an effort to remain afloat.
Marcus said teachers are so dedicated to the school’s mission they have offered to forgo their paychecks for the next two pay cycles to help.
“We recognize that it has a huge financial deficit,” Marcus said. “The school has been working very hard to come up with a strategy to address it.”
The school, the financial audit found, is expected to need an infusion of more than $830,000 between now and the end of the fiscal year, which concludes June 30. That jumps to more than $1 million when taking into account pay owed to teachers through the end of the summer. The school has a $300,000 line of credit, which it has maxed out.
Another report from the charter board released Monday declared that the school “has engaged in a pattern of fiscal mismanagement” and said “its expense structure is not in line with the school’s revenues.”
That report also determined that test scores at the school have declined over the past five years along with enrollment. The drop in enrollment contributed to the school’s financial troubles because schools often plan staffing and other budget items based on projected enrollment.
The school expected to enroll 284 students for the 2017-2018 academic year but has only 228. According to the report, the school has about a third fewer students than during the 2014-2015 academic year.
“The continued downward trend in enrollment has to do with many factors including an increasingly competitive high school environment, a substandard facility that the school is seeking to change and disruptive nearby construction projects,” the report reads.
The head of the school did not respond to a request Tuesday from The Washington Post for further comment.
If Washington Mathematics closes, it would leave students scrambling to find a new school for the next academic year.
The deadline to participate in the school lottery was March 1. If the school’s license is revoked, the charter board will have enrollment specialists meet with families to try to find an appropriate school for each child.
Still, it is unclear if students would be able to secure a slot at the city’s most sought-after schools. The students would also be at a disadvantage because they would be seeking slots as upperclassmen, and top schools with low turnover rates do not offer many spots to new students in the upper grades.
Students who are not yet enrolled at Washington Mathematics but selected it as one of their top choices in the lottery for the next academic year will have until Thursday to rearrange their preferences, according to Pearson.