Charter Fights for Life, But Stops Short of Court

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While charter schools sometimes resort to lawsuits to stymie efforts to shut them down, many others wage their fights with less dramatic weapons, such as administrative appeals.

A case in point played out recently in Rhode Island, where a charter school won a last-minute reprieve last summer to stay open after a lengthy appeal process, thanks in part to intervention by the local mayor and even the governor.

But it was a close call. In August, a state hearing officer affirmed an earlier judgment by the Rhode Island Department of Education that Beacon Charter High School for the Arts should close.

The problems were financial.

“Its academic programs were fine,” said Elliott Krieger, a spokesman for the state education agency. “They met all their annual targets on testing, and then some.”

But in its second year of operation, the school of some 115 students in Woonsocket, a city in northern Rhode Island, ran a large deficit. The state agreed to bail the school out last year under an agreement calling for it to shut down this past summer, unless the school had a financially viable plan to stay open.

“They didn’t come up with the plan that this office felt was suitable by the end of the [school] year,” Mr. Krieger said.

Despite that earlier agreement and the hearing officer’s ruling, the school appealed to the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education, Rhode Island’s sole body for authorizing charter schools.

The regents voted in August to keep the school open, subject to several financial changes, including getting a letter of credit from a financial backer. Also, the school must now undergo quarterly financial reviews by the regents.

‘On Probation’

The school also has a new principal: Robert Pilkington, the president of the League of Rhode Island Charter Schools.

“The process works,” Mr. Pilkington said of the experience with threatened closure. “It was a painful process, and it was a public process.”

He added that the school isn’t exactly free and clear. “We are on probation,” he said.

Mr. Pilkington, formerly a principal in the Providence city school district, argues that such scrutiny is the fundamental difference with charters.

“When the city of Providence [school system] goes $14 million over budget, nobody is saying, you have to close your system,” he said.

Vol. 25, Issue 16, Page 12

Published in Print: January 4, 2006, as Charter Fights for Life, But Stops Short of Court
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