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For First Time, 'Hands Off' Ariz. Revokes Charter for School

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The Arizona state school board pulled the plug last week on one of the state's 168 charter schools, marking the first time the state had shut down an operating school.

The board voted unanimously to revoke the charter it approved last year for Citizen 2000, a Phoenix K-8 charter school with a multicultural bent. Just prior to the board's Nov. 18 action, the school's owner filed for bankruptcy.

Lawndia White Venerable, Citizen 2000's founder and a former public school teacher and administrator, sent a letter home with students on Nov. 18 explaining that the school would not open again.

The state education department last week had collected the 200 students' records and was helping parents find new schools. The vast majority of the 90 parents who had called or visited the state agency for help asked that their children attend another charter school, officials said. The fate of Citizen 2000 employees was also up in the air.

Ms. Venerable's lawyer did not return repeated calls last week.

Grave Concerns

State officials have been negotiating with Citizen 2000's leaders since last spring over the school's administrative and financial problems. In January, the state's auditor general reported on Citizen 2000's accounting structure and concluded: "The school's controls are practically nonexistent, which is a matter of grave concern." The state attorney general's office last week continued its investigation of the school for possible misuse of public funds.

Ultimately, the state board took action last week because of financial discrepancies. The education department said the school had claimed it enrolled 100 more children than it could account for--amounting to an extra $250,000 in state school aid.

The closing of Citizen 2000 comes in a state that is being closely watched for taking the most hands-off approach to creating new charter schools. As in other states, many Arizona charter schools have struggled to stay afloat financially. Charter schools operate largely outside state control while receiving state funding in exchange for promising to meet certain performance goals. ("Shaky Finances Putting the Squeeze on Charters," Jan. 24, 1996.)

"As horrendous as this experience was for the parents and children, it is the responsibility of the board to seek the best education for kids in the most stable environment," Lisa Graham Keegan, the Arizona state superintendent and a charter school booster, said in a statement.

Observers like John R. Kakritz, the executive director of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said Citizen 2000's closure was hardly evidence of flaws in the charter concept.

"Schools have been failing for years but they stay open," Mr. Kakritz said. "The failure of a school being connected with its closing only strengthens the movement."

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