The state commission governing charter schools says First Place has 10 days to prove it is adequately addressing problems that could sink the school.

Share story

After months of problems, First Place Scholars, Washington’s first charter school, now has 10 days to convince the state’s charter commission that it is not failing the students the school was created to serve.

In a letter to the school Tuesday, the commission said First Place, which opened in September in Seattle’s Central District, has one last chance to respond to concerns the commission has repeatedly raised about the school’s staff, program and finances.

As it stands, the letter said, First Place appears to be “in clear violation of its commitments and obligations under its charter contract.”

Commissioners are losing confidence in the school, the letter said, and have significant concerns about the educational welfare of First Place students, many of whom are homeless.

The 16-page letter talks about old problems — including whether the school has enough money to keep its doors open until the end of the school year — and some new ones.

Among the new: The commission now questions whether students who are learning English as a second language are getting the services they need and are legally entitled to receive. And though the school accepted money from the state to help English language learners, it doesn’t appear the money was used for them, the letter said.

The commission also says First Place never bought a performance bond necessary to safeguard the public money the state has provided to the school.

Like charters elsewhere in the country, First Place is a public school funded with tax dollars, but run by an independent board of directors. It was expected to get $988,000 in state and federal money this school year.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, First Place Board President Dawn Mason repeated what she has said in the past — that the school just needs more time — and she placed some of the blame for the school’s problems on the commission.

The commission should not have allowed the school to open so quickly — just seven months after its charter was approved, Mason said. And she said it should have given First Place — formerly a private school — more time in order to assure the school could be in compliance the day it reopened as a charter.

“Granting a contract to begin as a charter school was a decision that came from the lack of the (Washington) Charter Commission knowing the depth and breadth of a public school structure,” Mason wrote.

But opening that quickly was the school’s idea, not the commission’s, according to copies of the school’s charter application.

The commission first put the school on probation in December after learning the school had no certified special-education teacher, not all the staff had completed required background checks, and that the school board president, principal and more than half the board had resigned.

In February, the commission launched a second inquiry, asking for assurance the school, which relies heavily on fundraising, was financially viable, especially since enrollment had declined.

The commission also asked the state auditor’s office to look into the finances of the nonprofit running the school. That audit is ongoing, a spokesman for the office said Wednesday.

The school since has responded to the commission, but the letter said the information provided was inadequate and mostly “validated and amplified” the commission’s concerns, instead of pacifying them.

The commission also expressed dismay that the school knew about problems that jeopardized its ability to serve students and did not tell the commission about them — another violation of its charter contract.

The school is now on its third special-education instructor, and enrollment is hovering around 86 students, up from a low of 73, but below the 98 that the budget was based on, according to Mason.

The school also has raised only about $7,000 of the $750,000 it said it would in its charter application, but has planned small fundraisers starting this month aimed at attracting former donors who supported First Place during its two decades as a private school. Still, the commission wrote, the school’s current financial status report projects a deficit of about $280,000 by the end of the year.

If the school does not respond with sufficient answers within 10 days, the commission “will have no choice but to take action,” the letter said, which could include revoking the school’s contract to operate as a public charter school.

The commission could also decide to impose another list of required changes, like it did once in December, or order some other sanction, said Steve Sundquist, the commission’s chairman.

“We are acknowledging in the letter that revocation is a possibility and the concerns we have are serious,” Sundquist said. “We’re saying, ‘Correct our perception, or we’re going to have to move on farther down the decision tree.’ ”

Mason said the school will respond within 10 days but that fixing the problems will take much longer.

“We have no doubt that we can satisfy what it takes to keep this charter,” she said. “The school will not close.”

Along with First Place, the state commission has approved seven other charters; six are scheduled to open this fall.

Spokane Public Schools has also greenlighted two other charters that are slated to open in 2015.