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Despite Lingering Questions, State's First Charter School Will Stay Open

Kyle Stokes
Dawn Mason, president of the First Place Scholars charter school's governing board (foreground), records school principal Linda Whitehead's presentation to a state commission on Thursday, June 18.

Washington state's first charter school is getting another second chance.

State charter commission members voted 4-3 against ending public funding for Seattle's First Place Scholars school Thursday afternoon, saying new leadership had made great strides to stabilize the school after its first chaotic months in operation.

They did so despite lingering doubts about whether the school would have enough cash to remain open into next school year — concerns commissioners had ordered school leaders to address in an ultimatum two weeks ago.

Of critical concern: First Place received state funding based on student enrollment projections the school fell well short of meeting, which means the school must pay back an estimated $140,000 over the next year. The school plans to cover that expense with additional fundraising.

Commissioners said they would keep close tabs on those efforts. They passed a motion requiring First Place leaders to provide monthly financial reports. They will also hold monthly votes on whether the school is making enough progress to keep its charter.

'We're Going To Prove Them Wrong'

The commission's new financial reporting requirements were an addition to an already-long list of deadlines for school leaders to supply additional information throughout the next year.

“We want you to be successful. We feel like we have to monitor,” said commission chairman Steve Sundquist. “We don’t want you to be able to open your doors if we don’t think you can be financially viable if the kids are going to essentially be turned away by a bankruptcy a couple of months down the road.”

Dawn Mason, president of First Place Scholars' governing board, said she was optimistic.

"A community like ours ... should be able to show that we can educate our own children, and [commissioners] said, 'You can educate your children, you just can’t raise the money to do it.' We’re going to prove them wrong,” Mason said.

'Last Time, We Said This Was The Last Time'

School leaders say the charter in Seattle's Central District neighborhood is now "First Place 2.0." Last fall, plummeting enrollment, the ouster of the school's former principal and the resignations of six board members had First Place reeling. But Mason and new principal Linda Whitehead now say they're working to bring the school into compliance.

Some concrete evidence of First Place's turnaround came to light Thursday. Commission staff announced the school had largely resolved questions about the school's program for teaching students who are still learning English.

But after giving the school a "final opportunity" to satisfy requests for more information, commissioners also ruled Thursday the school had only "partially" resolved open questions about the school's special education offerings.

"My concern is the viability of the process going forward. We put these conditions out there many times, and the last time, we said this was the last time," said commissioner Larry Wright, one of the three board members who in favor of revoking First Place's charter.

Whitehead — a former Marysville superintendent who came out of retirement to take over the school — said the commission's demands were daunting, but that she understands the need for oversight.

"We will continue to do all that is asked of us to make certain the commission can always not be able to vote to close our school," Whitehead said.

Sundquist, who voted against revoking the charter, said the commission was invested in the school staying open.

"We absolutely believe you’re on track of improvement," he said, "and that’s why I think we bet on — and we voted on — hope."

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