Saturday, November 9, 2002

Judge orders Avondale charter school closed

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A judge on Friday ordered an embattled Avondale charter school to close its doors and repay what remains of nearly $600,000 in payments the state made to the school.

The ruling leaves nearly 60 students who attended Learning Opportunities of Greater Cincinnati Inc. to find new schools two months into the school year.

James R. Greene III, attorney for the school, said he will appeal the ruling.

The state has been trying to close the school since Sept. 30, saying it opened without a certificate of occupancy, fire inspections, health and safety inspections and a state letter of approval to operate. State officials said the children were not receiving credit because the school was unauthorized.

After the verdict, about two dozen angry, tearful parents and students criticized the ruling by Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge John Andrew West.

"I feel sorry for my kids," said Madisonville parent Annette Spears, who had two children enrolled at the two-year-old charter school. "I don't want to even think about placing them someplace else."

Learning Opportunities, formerly known as Sabis International, is the first charter school in Cincinnati to close since Ohio's first charter schools opened in 1998.

There are 15 charter schools in the city and 121 operating statewide.

The state funds charter schools, which are public, tuition-free schools that are privately run by groups such as parents, nonprofit organizations or for-profit management companies. They were created to give parents an alternative to traditional public schools.

Parents at Learning Opportunities have been tutoring their children at home since Tuesday. They said they're unsure whether they'll home-school their children or send them to public schools. Many said they don't want their children to return to the traditional public schools, a system they say failed their children.

State officials, meanwhile, said they're pleased with the verdict.

"We're interested in making sure the children are placed into traditional or other community schools," said J.C. Benton, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education. "There's still time for them to complete their year."

Mr. Benton said the state also will focus on recovering what's left of the nearly $600,000 in state payments. The school has two weeks to repay the money.

Judge West said anyone violating his order should be taken into police custody and held with no bond until appearing before the court.

Parents said the school was targeted because the school board and its students were predominantly African-American.

"If the school was all whites, they would not touch it," Ms. Spears said.

Attorneys for the state during arguments said the decision to close the school had nothing to do with race.

Controversy has surrounded the school since last year, when the school's board fired the for-profit management company that had been running it. The management company had provided the school's curriculum and hired the school's staff.

School officials said the company, Cincinnati Education Management LLC, an affiliate of Minnesota-based Sabis Educational Systems Inc., was overly concerned with making a profit from the school.

Firing the company left school officials to find a new building, create a new curriculum and hire new teachers. The management company sued to evict the school from its building.

The school tried to secure another building and later tried to gain access to the Mount Auburn building to hold classes. School officials could not secure a bond for that building, holding school instead at the West End YMCA and later in the Avondale location at 3595 Washington Ave.


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