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Wash. State Raises New Questions About Troubled Charter School, Promises Changes

Kyle Stokes
Former First Place Scholars Charter School board president Dan Seydel speaks at a ceremonial ribbon-cutting to mark the school's opening in September. Within two months, he was out as board president.

The process of vetting new charter schools will look different during the next round of applications, the head of the Washington State Charter School Commission has now said.

It's one of the lessons the commission says it's learned as it raises new questions about the academic and financial health of Seattle's First Place Scholars school, the first charter to open its doors in Washington.

Charter commission executive director Joshua Halsey said Thursday school leaders have until Tuesday, Feb. 17 to answer questions about "potential issues at First Place around compliance with their charter contract," the covenant that governs the school's operations. The issues are "a potentially big deal," Halsey said. 

Halsey said the commission has new questions about the school's finances. He added the commission has learned more than 20 of First Place's 98 students have left the school — a drop big enough to potentially jeopardize a significant portion of the school's state funding if students don't return.

Fixing Early Troubles

Charter schools are publicly-funded schools run by nonprofit groups, not traditional school districts.

A private school in Seattle for more than 25 years, First Place's first months as a charter have been disastrous. In October, five of the school's board members quit. At the end of the month, the board voted out its president. By December, the school's principal had left, too. (All have since been replaced.)

On Dec. 16, Halsey and the commission placed First Place on probation. Halsey noted the school didn't have a special education teacher even though nearly one in five First Place students required special education services. He also said the school would have to address various governance and student safety issues.

Halsey said Thursday the school's new leadership had made great progress in correcting most of the identified issues. He said he has "every confidence" they'll outline a plan for offering special education services in accordance with state guidelines.

"Things are going quite well at First Place regarding the corrective action," he said.

Heavier Scrutiny Ahead

William Haft is the vice president for authorizer development with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. He helped the Washington State Charter School Commission get off the ground as it went through its first rounds of applicants.

He said the state was asking many of the right questions when it vetted First Place's application to reopen as a charter, and the school must be responsible for its own success. 

"There are some very basic [obligations] where they just aren't doing what they said they were going to do," Haft said.

The next round of applications to open new charter schools in Washington state will begin Friday, with applications due in mid-March — and they'll likely face greater financial scrutiny.

"We had faith in [the process]. We felt it would address the issues we feel that are most important. We have noticed we need to make some changes, and we have done that. You'll notice that in this next round," Halsey said.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.