Friday, September 28, 2001

Senator wants school closed

Harmony's gone without a building

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        State Sen. Mark Mallory, D-Cincinnati, wants Harmony Community School, one of the state's original charter schools, shut down for operating without a building despite accepting more than $460,000 in state funds in July and August.

        The school's attorney, however, said the school has a new facility — the Slush Puppie Corp. office and warehouse on Radcliff Drive in Price Hill — and will start classes there today for about 500 students.

    Authorized by Ohio in 1997, tuition-free charter schools — also called community schools — offer more options for parents and bring competition to the school market. They use state funds but operate separately from public schools, instead governed by parent groups or nonprofit organizations.
        “We anticipate having a certificate of occupancy before (Friday) morning,” said Harmony attorney Phyllis Brown, who runs her own law firm downtown.

        Mr. Mallory — a critic of charter schools for what he calls a lack of accountability — blasted the school, formerly located in Bond Hill, after hearing that classes were being held in locations throughout Cincinnati, including the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County on Vine Street, downtown.

        Harmony vacated its building at Swifton Commons shopping center this summer, still owing about $40,000 in back rent and late fees to Allen Temple Real Estate Foundation, said Jackie Hobbs, the attorney representing the foundation.

        Officials from the Ohio Department of Education (DOE) will be at the Price Hill site this morning to request proof of a certificate of occupancy, health and fire permits, background checks for the staff and governing body of the school, certificates and licenses for the teaching staff, and liability insurance, said Dottie Howe. an Ohio DOE spokeswoman.

        If the documents aren't provided, the state can close or temporarily suspend operations at the school. Charter schools receive state funding but operate separately from public schools.

        Since opening in 1998, Harmony has had its share of controversy:

        • In 1999, Louis Oates, a fired board member, and Linda McIntyre, who chaired Harmony's “accountability cabinet,” said David Nordyke, the school's director, refused to provide records and made decisions without approval from the school's board.

        • In 1999, the Ohio DOE investigated charges that Harmony had questionable financial practices and violated laws governing accessibility of records and meetings. Five months later, an Ohio DOE investigation cleared the school of the most serious allegations.

        • In 2000, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers filed suit against four of the city's five charter schools, including Harmony, claiming the schools don't comply with state open-records laws in a case that the union hopes will highlight the state's lack of oversight.

        • The charter school filed lawsuits against the state of Ohio in December 2000 and July 2001. One alleges the state owes the charter school $545,000 for special education students enrolled there. Another contests the state's means of figuring charter school enrollment and says the state owes the school around $175,000, Ms. Brown said.

        The Ohio DOE withheld the school's September operating payment, which the state pays to charter schools each month based on enrollment. State officials will decide today whether to sign and renew the contract for Harmony's charter, Ms. Howe said.

        School officials were readying the building Thursday night by arranging furniture, but classes were expected to begin at 9 a.m., said principal Dan Mooney.

        School officials Thursday denied allegations that:

        • The school was holding classes in scattered public locations.

        • A fight at the library involved Harmony students.

        • The school's contract had been retracted by the Ohio DOE.

        “We are fiscally sound,” Mr. Mooney said.

        Ms. Brown said the school did not pay the rent at the Swifton Commons location for May and June because of concerns about alleged safety violations at the site. The lease for the building ended on June 30.

        School officials also bristled at the characterization that they were stashing students and holding classes in clandestine locations throughout Cincinnati until they found a building.

        Library officials, however, said Thursday that the school had been holding classes at the downtown branch.

        Kim Fender, director of the main library, said schools are expected to register with the library when bringing in large student groups.

        Ms. Fender said Harmony did not register with the library and until Wednesday was in its third week of bringing up to 200 students and staff to the downtown branch.

        “What we told them is that the library cannot be used as a school building,” she said. “But we do allow the library to be used for research and library instruction.”

        Having so many unscheduled students and teachers put a strain on the library's resources, she said. Despite a request more than a week ago to discontinue using the library for classes, the school continued bringing students, she said.

        Ms. Brown, the school's attorney, said the students were working on projects to get to know the city.

        She said students visited the Civil Unrest In Cincinnati: Voices of Our Community exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center, toured City Hall and sat in on City Council meetings, as well as the library. She said the groups visiting the library were not the same every day.

        Mr. Mallory said the school should not have been operating without a firm location.

        “The bottom line is schools are supposed to provide education for students and that can't happen unless they have a location for their school.”

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