After months of back-and-forth, the state commission governing charter schools decided Thursday to let First Place Scholars continue to operate as a taxpayer-supported but independently run public school.
Nine months after first raising concerns about First Place Scholars, the state commission governing charter schools agreed Thursday to give the school yet more time to fix its troubled special-education services and raise enough money to keep going.
Commission Chairman Steve Sundquist called it a “leap of faith” to trust that the state’s first charter could raise enough money to cover operations next year and pay back about $140,000 of what it received from the state this year because enrollment dropped from 98 students to about 75.
But at the end of a nearly six-hour discussion, commissioners agreed more time was best, in part because of the school’s strong progress.
“Because we felt that you have made substantial progress as a school, we absolutely want you to continue,” Sundquist said after the vote.
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The commission first voted on whether to revoke the school’s charter, a motion that failed narrowly — 3 votes to 4. If it had passed, that would have started the process that could have ended public funding for First Place, a longtime private school that converted into a charter last fall.
But the school still faces a long list of demands that it must meet over the summer and into next school year. The commission, for example, asked for regular progress reports on the school’s special-education program and finances.
The commission’s decision comes after months of grueling, sometimes emotional deliberations over the fate of Washington’s first charter, a type of school that is funded with tax dollars but run by an independent board of directors.
Concerns first arose in October, a month after First Place, which serves mostly homeless students in Seattle’s Central District, reopened as a charter. Shortly after classes began, the school’s principal, board president and more than half the board members resigned.
Since then, the state commissioners have questioned the small school’s financial stability and the adequacy of its education offerings, especially the fact that, at times, the school lacked a special-education teacher. Until recently, according to the commission, the school also had not identified which students needed extra help learning English.
Reams of documentation have been exchanged between the school and the commission during months of back-and-forth. Commissioners are aware that they are setting a precedent at every turn, and they have worried about giving First Place too many last chances.
But commissioners also have noted the school’s progress: First Place has added more board members, hired a special-education teacher and written a plan for how to make up the special-education services its students missed.
The commissioners have given the school at least two last chances — the latest earlier this month. But while the school has yet to meet all the commission’s requirements, it has met or partially met most of them, the commissioners agreed Thursday.
The school, for its part, has consistently asked for more time. Dawn Mason, who became president of the school’s board of directors after the former leader stepped down, has said the commission should not have allowed the school to open so quickly — just seven months after its charter was approved. More time, she has said, would have ensured the school would be in compliance with public-education laws the day it reopened as a charter.
During the Thursday meeting, charter commissioners heard impassioned testimony from First Place teachers, including special-education teacher Cori Ryason, who started at the school in March. She said students will work with her and other staff over the summer to make up what was missed this year.
The school plans to raise the $140,000 it owes the state before the school year starts, said Linda Whitehead, the school’s principal. If that doesn’t work, she said, they will make up the difference by enrolling more students next year but keeping the same or lower staff levels.
“We have come this far,” she said. “We have a parent community, a student community, that is relying on us.”