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Published in Print: April 24, 2002, as Parents' Efforts Fail to Save Delaware Charter

Parents' Efforts Fail to Save Delaware Charter

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The Delaware Department of Education took a first step last week toward revocation of the charter of a 7-month-old school that closed recently, despite parents' passionate efforts to save it.

The state Charter School Accountability Committee voted April 18 to compile a preliminary report recommending that Georgetown Charter School's charter be withdrawn. After several other steps, including a public hearing, a vote by the state board of education will determine the school's final fate.

After the state education department discovered the school was more than $1.5 million in the red, it closed March 27. But parents rallied around the school, which had more than 600 students in kindergarten through 6th grade, holding fund-raisers in an effort to pay off debts.

Deputy Secretary of Education Jennifer J. Davis said the charter-revocation recommendation was based on the school's closure and its lack of financial viability. "We take this very seriously," Ms. Davis said. "I never want to be in this situation again."

The school, located in Georgetown, Del., is only the second charter school in the state's history to shut down, and the first to do so during a school year. The other, Richard Milburn Academy in New Castle County closed in June 2000. Delaware has nine other charter schools in operation.

The Georgetown charter started the year with $3.7 million in state and local funding, Ms. Davis said. In Delaware, charter schools receive the same funding per pupil as regular public schools.

But, according to Ms. Davis, school officials admitted that as early as September, they had concerns about financial stability.

No Fraud Suspected

Ms. Davis said state officials do not suspect fraud. Rather, their analysis indicates a lack of financial knowledge on the part of those who ran the school. Georgetown Charter attorney Gerald Street said the school spent its money on building projects, believing the state wanted a permanent facility, and overspent on salaries. He said officials, to stave off the revocation, must now prove to the state agency that they can be financially responsible.

"They have to give the state confidence that future budgets won't be exceeded," Mr. Street said.

According to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that favors charter schools, 2,357 charter schools nationwide are currently serving more than 578,000 students. About 4 percent of the largely autonomous public schools close annually, the center says.

Parents in Delaware are still reeling from the closure of a school many saw as a haven for learning. They waged a passionate campaign to sustain the school, with its small learning groups and use of "direct instruction" methods for kindergarten through grade 6. Some parents staged a weeklong sit-in at the school, camping out or sleeping inside the building.

To raise money, supporters sold painted Easter eggs, held dime tosses, organized a yard sale, and then an auction. They hawked $1 buttons saying: "Georgetown Charter School, we don't have much dough, but watch us go."

In a month, the parent-teacher organization raised nearly $400,000, said parent Chris Eames of Lincoln, Del. Ms. Eames said she was "irritated" by administrators she believes let the school stumble, but she praised the education her two children got.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a leading choice advocate, said though regular public schools often receive this kind of community support, it's atypical for parents to rally around a charter so passionately. "It's sort of heart-rending," he said. "You want parents that committed to be able to hang on to the school."

Since the school closed, parents are home schooling or sending their children to other schools. The education department estimates more than 200 students from the charter have moved to regular Delaware public schools. But funding has already been spent, Ms. Davis said, and their new schools will get no additional money this year.

Georgetown Charter School parents remain saddened.

Parent Lisa Prestipino of Rehobeth Beach, Del., who had three children enrolled there, called it a "model for education."

"It worked for learning-disabled kids; it worked for gifted kids," she said. "They weren't the best financial planners, but they were the best educators."

Vol. 21, Issue 32, Page 15

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