The school year ended early for nearly 600 Minnesota students when their charter school buckled under mounting financial and political pressure last month and abruptly closed its doors.
Success Academy opened in 1997 on the east side of St. Paul to educate elementary school children considered at risk of academic failure. The school saw its own future called into question, however, when the city school board refused to renew its charter at a May 29 hearing because of concerns about financial mismanagement and substandard student achievement.
District and state officials say they had expected Success Academy to finish out its academic year, which had been scheduled to end June 13. But the K-6 school, unable to pay its teachers and other staff members when a local bank froze its account, surprised nearly everyone by closing its two campuses May 30 after classes.
“There was a risk that teachers wouldn’t show up because we couldn’t make payroll, so we decided for the safety of the kids we needed to close the school,” said Julie A. Guy, the curriculum director for Success Academy and the acting budget chairwoman of its governing board.
St. Paul school officials offered to put Success Academy’s displaced students in two of its schools until the end of the year and hire staff members from the charter school to substitute teach at those sites, but only 51 students have accepted that invitation.
Success Academy had longer school days and a longer academic calendar than St. Paul’s regular public schools, a district spokeswoman said, so the students had already fulfilled state attendance requirements for the year.
The popularity and number of charter schools in the United States have soared in the eight years since the first of the publicly funded but largely independent schools opened in St. Paul. Next fall, some 433,000 students are expected to attend nearly 2,000 charter schools in 33 states and the District of Columbia.
Only 64 charter schools have closed or been shut down since 1992, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based organization that advocates alternatives to public schools. As with Success Academy, most closings result from mismanagement, said David DeSchryver, a policy analyst with the center.
“There are certain things you have to tackle early—the right lawyers, a financial plan, a purchasing process,” Mr. DeSchryver said. “It’s a little harder on the budget because it’s money spent up front, but you have to have these things in place if you’re going to be successful.”
In the case of Success Academy, the 45,000-student St. Paul district’s charter school review team compiled a list of problems in a report delivered this spring to the school board.
The team found fault with everything from the school’s complicated contractual relationship with a local for-profit management firm, Public Academy Inc., to its academic program and staff-development efforts.
The most glaring item on the list was a $1.4 million operating deficit, which district officials say was mostly a result of financial mismanagement by Public Academy. Among other problems, the team found that the company had not accounted for a one- year lag in enrollment-based school funding from the state and had routinely overprojected enrollment.
The review team also said the firm had overcharged the school for licensing fees on instructional materials, building leases, and management services.
“The way they were choosing to spend the money they received made it impossible for them to have a quality school plan,” said Mary B. Chorewycz, the St. Paul district’s director for school quality review. “Many of the children attending this school were among the neediest in St. Paul, but their needs were not being met.”
Public Academy’s president, Charles R. Young, declined to comment. Success Academy was the only school the company managed.
But Success Academy’s Ms. Guy said the review “wasn’t fair at all.”
“There were 29 factual errors in the report, they spent one day in our school—six hours—and they came with preconceived notions,” she said.
Success Academy officials responded to the district team’s report by making changes in the school’s management structure and offering a plan to eliminate its budget deficit. They also disputed many of the district’s findings in a written rebuttal to the school board, but lost that appeal.
“I think the district based its decision on a good review process,” said Steve J. Dess, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, which worked with the St. Paul district in its review of Success Academy and other schools with charters up for renewal this year.
“It’s important that a school that is not performing is closed,” Mr. Dess said. “We want the stock of charter schools in the state to get stronger.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2000 edition of Education Week as Troubled St. Paul Charter School Closes Early