Ohio

Eye on Education

Ohio Department of Education Investigates Troubled Columbus Charter School

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Ohio charter school ScholARTS Preparatory and Career Center for Children opened in 2004.

It received an F from the state every year it has been rated.

It posted an operating loss of $1.2 million.

The nonprofit group that oversees the school wants to cut ties.

But ScholARTS is still open and could continue to operate thanks to a provision state lawmakers included in last year’s state budget. That provision allows the Ohio Department of Education to assume oversight duties of charter schools.

The school has applied to the department for that option, but today the Ohio Department of Education launched an on-site review of the Columbus charter school’s special education services.

Facing Closure

Ohio charter schools must be sponsored by nonprofits or other organizations responsible for making sure they follow state laws and manage their money well.

ScholArts’ sponsor, Kids Count Dayton, warned the school earlier this year that it would cut ties with the school on Dec. 31. That could force the school to close, since Ohio charter schools must have sponsors in order to operate.

But Ohio Department of Education spokesperson John Charlton said ScholArts has applied for department sponsorship. The application is “under review.”

The director of the nonprofit that currently oversees ScholArts — Kids Count Dayton – says her group is willing to allow another group to step in and oversee the school if that group thinks it can help the school improve.

But if a low-performing charter school doesn’t improve over time, it should not operate, said Ethel Harris, director of Kids Count Dayton.

“If you can’t turn the finance, the management and the academics around you should not [stay open],” Harris said. “We’re certainly not in support of substandard schools operating in the state of Ohio.”

ScholArts CEO Cheryl Parchia did not return a message left at the school today.

Exempted from Automatic Closure

Although state law requires charter schools that continually perform poorly on state tests to close, ScholArts is exempted from closure because of its high population of students with disabilities.

ScholArts enrolled about 190 students last year. About two-third of the school’s students had autism or a behavioral disorder.

State Review

Today the Ohio Department of Education began a surprise, on-site review of ScholArts operations examining the school’s attendance records, education plans for students with disabilities and grant-management records.

The department began reviewing the school’s special education services in March 2011. But more than a year later, the school’s plan to improve its special education services is still in “basically the first phase,” Associate Superintendent James Herrholtz said.

“We’ve identified systemic and ongoing problems with the servicing of students with disabilities,” Herrholtz said. “We’ve found significant and the same types of problems. where services either are not being provided or the [educational] needs of children are not being met.”

Harris, the director of ScholArts’ sponsor, said she was unaware of the department’s investigation until today.

Financial Problems

The school also faces numerous financial and management problems, including spending $1.2 million more than it took in during the last fiscal year, according to the schools most recent state audit.

The state auditor found that ScholArts had incorrectly reported attendance information used to calculate school funding and did not maintain documentation for many of the educational purchases the state auditor’s office examined in its review.

The school’s governing board didn’t meet or look at any financial records for four months last fiscal year, according to the state auditor.

ScholArts had trouble accounting for some of the more than $1 million in federal funds it has received under federal stimulus and school turnaround grants.

And the school did not receive state payments in the first months of this school year because its enrollment fell short of expectations.

ScholArts financial problems are the primary reason Kids Count Dayton decided to sever ties, Harris said.

“They do have some issues with the educational component. But you can’t run a school if you don’t have the dollars,” she said.

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