The Washington State Charter School Commission on Thursday decided to give First Place Scholars yet one more chance to keep its contract to operate as a publicly funded charter school.
MOUNT VERNON — Some of the members of the Washington State Charter School Commission on Thursday called for revoking the state’s contract with First Place Scholars, the state’s first charter school.
In a four-hour discussion, they expressed concerns over the Seattle school’s finances and educational program and voiced doubts about its ability to improve quickly enough.
But the school still has a line on life because most of the commissioners want to give the school yet another chance as a publicly funded, but independently run charter. If its contract is revoked, First Place would no longer receive any public funds.
Still, the commissioners set another deadline, and plan to issue another set of ultimatums that First Place must meet before June 17, the school’s last day of classes.
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First Place has floundered since it converted last fall from a private school serving mostly homeless students in Seattle’s Central District to a charter.
The school has had a spate of problems, from the resignations of the principal and half the school board to its failure to provide required special-education services to students. First Place’s finances have been questioned, too — the nonprofit overseeing the school recently borrowed against its endowment and maxed out a line of credit about three years ago.
Many commissioners agreed Thursday that the school has made substantial progress and credited the school staff for what they called a herculean effort. The school has hired a new special-education teacher and is drafting a plan for how to make up the missed services.
And it’s more likely than not that the school has enough money to function for the rest of the school year, though commissioners said next year is another matter.
But the school still hasn’t produced data that shows its educational program is working, said Joshua Halsey, the commission’s executive director. The evidence to date, he said, supports revoking the school’s charter contract.
“I’m simply not seeing evidence of a high-quality education occurring at First Place,” he said during the meeting Thursday.
The finances, too, remain questionable. Halsey said First Place will likely owe about $138,000 to the state early next school year because not as many students enrolled as planned — and it receives funding on a per-pupil basis.
Enrollment has dropped since that estimate, he said. And Steve Sundquist, the commission’s chairman, said the school is still running in the red and has not paid some vendors for work.
Some commissioners, including Raymond Navarro, said the commission has done enough, and to continue setting deadlines for the school to turn around sets a poor example for charter schools opening this fall and beyond.
“The progress that has been shown is not enough for me, personally” Navarro said. “And there has been a lot of opportunity to correct and update. There’s been a lot of opportunity to remedy this situation.”
Navarro and Commissioner Margit McGuire were the only two to vote against giving First Place more time.
“I’m just not confident that we’re going to see a miraculous ‘something else’ on this timeline,” McGuire said.
The commissioners did not give any specifics about what their ultimatums will be. But it’s clear they’re concerned about setting a precedent of setting deadlines, then extending them repeatedly.
Before voting to issue another set of ultimatums, Commissioner Larry Wright said there is a “kicking the can” element to the decision, but emphasized that the June conditions must be clear — and final.
Two months ago, the commission sent First Place a letter outlining concerns about the school’s finances and its educational program. In the letter, Halsey, the commission’s executive director, wrote that the document provided First Place “one final opportunity to respond to the concerns that have been identified.” Later, the commission extended the deadline.
“We’ve given them a lot of ‘one more shots,’ ” said Commissioner Dave Quall.
A small group of commissioners will write the conditions, and the commission plans to vote on whether to approve them on June 3. If the conditions are approved, First Place will have until June 15 to respond.
The goal is to let First Place families know before the end of the school year whether the school will continue to be a public school next fall.
First Place Board President Dawn Mason, who was not at the meeting, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the school deserves more time, because it launched more quickly than the eight other charters slated to open this fall.
CLARIFICATION: Information in this article, originally published May 21, 2015, was corrected May 28, 2015. A previous version said the nonprofit overseeing First Place Scholars, Washington state’s first charter school, did not specify when the group maxed out a line of credit.