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State Issues Ultimatum For Seattle Charter School: Get Fixed Or Lose Funds

Kyle Stokes
First Place Scholars charter school in Seattle's Central District neighborhood. The school is the first charter — a publicly-funded school operated outside of the control of a local school board — to open in Washington state.";s:

State officials issued an ultimatum to Seattle's First Place Scholars charter school on Wednesday: Fix a host of academic and financial problems within two weeks or lose public funding.

Specifically, First Place staff must provide a "viable expense budget"  by June 15, along with detailed evidence of how the school is serving its English language learners and students receiving special education services, outlined the warning letterissued by the Washington State Charter School Commission.

If First Place -- the state's first-ever charter school -- doesn't meet that deadline or provide satisfactory answers, the letter said the commissioners will have no choice but to revoke the school's charter and with it, the legal authority to receive state funding.

The Goalposts

"If we are, in essence, going to have the confidence to allow the school to open for a second year again, to serve kids, we believe strongly these things have to be in place for them to be able to meet their obligations under the law and under the charter," commission president Steve Sundquist said during a special meeting of the panel.

The commission's deadline comes after months of back-and-forth over a series of "perceived problems" at First Place with the school's leaders, some of whom have grown increasingly frustrated with the process of answering the commission's inquiries.

But Dawn Mason, the president of First Place Scholars' governing board, said the school can and will satisfy the commission's demands. Despite her lingering concerns that state officials are "moving the goalposts," Mason said commissioners are now giving the school a clearer sense of what they want.

"I know the reason for the movement [of the goalposts]: we're pioneers and we're new to this. So is the commission," Mason said.

'Total Chaos In The School'

Problems at First Place, which operated as a private school in Seattle's Central District for more than 25 years, became apparent within months after the school re-opened as a charter last September.

Approved by a voter initiative in 2012, charter schools are publicly funded but operate under the authority of non-profit boards rather than school districts. Charter schools face tight scrutiny of their academic and financial performance, but in exchange, enjoy freedom from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools.

In October, five board members quit and then-board president Dan Seydel resigned. In November, an outside consultant concluded the school's then-principal wasn't effectively leading. By December, she was gone — replaced by former Marysville school superintendent Linda Whitehead — and the commission had placed the school on probation.

"It was total chaos in the school," said Mason, a former Democratic state lawmaker who stepped in as First Place Scholars' new board president in October, laying blame at the feet of the school's past leadership.

But since then, Mason said she and Whitehead have stabilized the school's enrollment — which, she said, has rebounded to 86 students this spring after hitting a low of 73 last fall — and brought First Place back into compliance with its charter.

Frustrating Back-And-Forth

State officials aren't yet certain of that. Commission documents tell the tale of an exasperating back-and-forth with First Place leaders in which state officials felt they didn't receive complete answers to questions about a host of issues — from enrollment procedures to teacher duties and student progress.

"The data submitted does not support the statements in response to our concern," read the commission's response in one April 29 exchange about assessment data. "The response did not engender confidence," read another commission reaction in a May 18 meeting about the school's English language learner programs.

The school's financial future is also uncertain. First Place could be forced to pay back the state more than $100,000 in funding it received for students who un-enrolled from the school. While Sundquist said the school has enough money to get through the school year, the future is "clouded" until the state budget is finalized.

Mason said First Place will receive both federal grant money and additional state funding — because the school has implemented viable special education and student nutrition plans — which will go a long way to shoring up the school's financial position.

'First Place 2.0'

But Mason says she was encouraged by the commission's tone during Wednesday's meeting, which was held via conference call. She says she heard commissioners referring to strides the school has made since the ouster of its prior leadership.

"That's the first time I have heard them acknowledge that there was a change. And now what they're saying is, 'Okay, it's now [First Place] 2.0,'" Mason said, "but we need to see ... that by the time we open the doors in September, everything is in place."

"And," Mason added later, "I agree with that."

Commissioners also acknowledged it will be difficult for the school to put its plans for compliance on paper by June 15.

"I'm sure the members of First Place's board and potentially staff members who are listening to a call would agree this has the potential to be a big lift," Sundquist said. "These are also very foundational things we believed had to be in place before we could comfortably move on to this place where we've been in the last six months."

The commission's letter also lists nine additional conditions for compliance the school would have to satisfy as early as July and throughout the next school year — should the school meet its June 15 deadline.

The commission will meet on June 18 to decide whether First Place's answers are satisfactory.

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