Monday, April 01, 2002

State to overhaul charter school system

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As two Cincinnati charter schools wrestle with allegations of financial mismanagement, the state is about to overhaul its five-year-old charter school system.

        The board of directors of the SABIS International School of Cincinnati in Mount Auburn last week asked the courts to close the school. The board claims the school's management company was profiting from the non-profit school, leaving insufficient funds for operation.

        The state is also wrangling with the Greater Cincinnati Community Academy to pay back about $1.5 million the Northside school had owed the state.

        Meanwhile, legislation on its way to the Senate could strip the state of direct oversight of charter schools.

        Charter schools are free public schools run by parents, teachers or other interested groups, such as private companies. Their numbers have grown from 15 in 1998, when they opened in Ohio, to 92 today.

        About 23,850, or 1.3 percent, of the state's 1.8 million public school students attend Ohio's charter schools.

        State officials say the legislation, as well as other changes spurred by the Ohio Department of Education, will improve the charter school system and reduce potential for problems like those arising in Cincinnati.

        “We're taking a much more active role in continuing oversight,” said Steve Burigana, executive director of the Office of Community Schools at the Ohio Department of Education. “This is legislation developed with our support and input to strengthen the program.”

        The proposed legislation, which passed the House last week, and other changes by the state department of education, began to materialize shortly before a state auditor's report released in February. The 208-page audit criticized the operation and management of community schools in Ohio and outlined 109 recommendations.

        Critics of the pending legislation say it will make charter schools available to most any non-profit organization that wants to start one.

        “It's a breathtakingly bold scam,” said Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “This is a potentially explosive growth of charter schools. They can practically print money.”

        The state, which funds charter schools, overpaid the Greater Cincinnati Community Academy by around $1 million last school year.

        The state learned about the overpayment when the academy could not provide documentation to verify the total number of stu dents and the number of special education students attending the school.

        During fiscal year 2000, the charter school was paid for 652 students but could only provide documentation for 569 students, department of education spokeswoman Dottie Howe said. That amounted to about $370,000 in overpayment.

        At the same time, the school, which opened in 1999, was paid for 122 students receiving special education but could only provide documentation for 22 such students, Ms. Howe said. That overpayment was $594,000.

        Beginning in October 2001, the state reduced monthly payments to the school by about $43,000, Ms. Howe said. The state has changed its system of monitoring enrollment from twice a year to monthly.

        The state Attorney General's office also is trying to work with the school, said spokesman Joe Case, to repay more than $500,000 to the School Employees Retirement System of Ohio

        The board of SABIS filed suit Monday to have its school closed, saying the company running it is trying to make money off the non-profit public school.

        The board is made up of four volunteers who oversee the 652-student K-7 school. They claim they were misled by the for-profit school management company they hired to run the school, Cincinnati Education Management, LLC which is an affiliate of Minnesota-based SABIS Educational Systems Inc..

        The lawsuit, filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, claims the company could leave the school without enough funds to run it because of contractual agreements.

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