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charter school

Rachele Reese will be shifting from Leading Edge Academy to A+ Charter Schools. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson

Maricopa is gaining more educational opportunities this year as two new charter schools plan to open in July.

IF YOU GO
What: A+ Charter Schools Open House
When: Jan. 10, 6 p.m.
Where: Leading Edge Academy, 18700 N. Porter Road

A+ Charter Schools is set to build a facility to be open by July 24. It is enrolling high school and junior high students. An open house for residents to learn more about A+ Charter is set for Thursday at 6 p.m. at Leading Edge Academy.

“Our goal in the first three years is 300 students,” said Rachele Reese, assistant principal at Leading Edge Academy – Maricopa.

Reese has been on staff at Leading Edge full-time for three years. Next school year, however, she will be an administrator at A+ Charter Schools.

Corporate board members are Rebekah Krueger, business manager of Arizona Charter Solutions, management company of Leading Edge Academy, and Laura Newcomb, owner and president of Autism Academy for Education and Development (AAED), with three campuses in the Valley. Newcomb also built the framework for special education still in use at Leading Edge.

Reese said Newcomb approached her about creating a high school. Reese told her that would be a good idea if it was in Maricopa.

“We need options in Maricopa if nothing else,” Reese said. “We also need to try to bring back some of the kids that are going out of town.”

A+ Charter Schools incorporated as a nonprofit in 2017. The governing board includes Mat Reese, principal of Leading Edge Academy – Maricopa (and Rachele’s husband), Derrick Jamerson, principal with LEAD and AAED, and Krueger.

“We wanted to start small,” Rachele Reese said. “I want to get to know the family and the kid and then really start creating that infrastructure that you need when you start a school before building.”

The charter was approved by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools on Dec. 10. According to application materials, A+ Charter intends to start with grades seventh through 10th and then add 11th grade and 12th grade by 2021. It is intended to focus on workforce readiness.

“One of the things that I have always noticed from high schools is the fact that when you finish high school, the advisor can give you a test and then say, ‘These are your skills,’” Reese said. “But there is really no real-life idea of what that job is going to look like.”

She said she wants to take the culture and positive attitude of Leading Edge to A+ Charter Schools. Mat Reese said A+ Charter will also seek membership in the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

IF YOU GO
What: Heritage Academy Job Fair
When: Jan. 8, 5 p.m.
Where: HomeSmart Success, 19756 N. John Wayne Parkway, Suite 100

During the same meeting at which A+ Charter was approved by the state board, Heritage Academy received the OK to expand to Maricopa and increase its enrollment. It, too, is targeting middle school and high school students.

Heritage Academy Inc. has been in business 23 years. The Maricopa campus is to start with sixth through 10th grade and grow to sixth-12th by 2022. It is planning for 500 students.

With a more public outreach to families, Heritage Academy compiled a list of 1,340 Maricopans interested in a charter high school, according to its application. It expects to open with a staff of 39. Heritage is hosting a job fair Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. at HomeSmart Success.

School is expected to start at Heritage Academy July 22. It does not have school on Fridays and takes two-week breaks for fall, winter and spring.

Corporate Board members are Diane and Jared Taylor. Governing Board members are Raymond Jones, Travis Moore, Marie Renard, Eve Seaman and Jared Taylor.

A+ Charter may be built near Banner Health off Porter Road. Heritage Academy has a location at Adams Way and Conner Drive.

Curtis Cardine is a fellow with the Grand Canyon Institute and a retired educator with 45 years of experience in public and charter schools. Photo by Jeff Kronenfeld

Camino Montessori — which closed earlier this month — is hardly unique in the challenges it faced as a charter school in Arizona.

Of the 427 charter schools to have closed since charters were first granted by the state in 1994, 66 shut on short notice during the school year, according to data from Curtis Cardine, a fellow with the Grand Canyon Institute and a retired educator with 45 years of experience in public and charter schools.

“I worked for two charter groups out here and left them both in disgust because of what’s allowed financially,” Cardine said. “They’re paying so much debt they can’t meet their obligations. That’s what’s happening to your company that’s down there.”

Proceeds from the sale of the school’s assets, including a 3.06-acre property purchased on March 3, 2017, for $445,400, will first go to pay back the school’s debts. The primary debt holder is the Community Investment Corporation (CIC), which provided the loan for the property’s purchase.

Initial attempts to finance the purchase through a bond ended unsuccessfully, which led the school to taking out the loan and incurring additional costs related to escrow payments during the several month delay, according to Judy Webster, CEO and board president of the school.

“My whole motive and vision was to bring Montessori education to people who couldn’t ordinarily afford it,” Webster said. “I just wanted to make it work, and it didn’t.”

Located near the intersection of Smith-Enke and Porter roads, the property is currently listed for sale at $700,000 by NAI Horizon. No potential purchasers had contacted the company as of Oct. 25, according to Logan Crum, an associate with NAI Horizon.

Webster said that she and her husband, Kevin, are also debt holders, having extended roughly $120,000 to the school. She said the school had defaulted on the repayment. This was corroborated by the school’s tax filings. She does not anticipate ever recouping this debt, as she believes there will not be enough money left over once CIC and other debts are paid off.

If there are any remaining assets after creditors are paid, they would need to be transferred to another nonprofit, according to Anne Byrne, professional-in-residence with ASU Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation.

By reviewing Cardine’s data and speaking with Webster, a more complete picture of the events leading to the school’s sudden closure is possible. As stated in previous articles, the school had been losing money for several years. The school was losing $308 dollars per student for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Cardine said some of the larger networks of charter school providers were losing equal or larger amounts per student, such as BASIS losing as much as $330 per student. Due to their greater financial resources, growing enrollment and multiple campuses, they were more able to weather these costs and shift money around.

Cardine noted other problems indicated by Camino Montessori’s tax filings, such as taking out short-term loans and using credit cards to deal with cash-flow problems. Between 2013 and 2017, the school did not meet the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools (ASBCS) financial performance expectations for three of the four years.

Webster also confirmed, as reported in a previous article, that the school had reached an out-of-court settlement with the family of a student, though she disputed that this was an admission of guilt regarding accusations she delayed the evaluation and provision of services for the disabled student.

“I think small charter schools like us face similar challenges in a system as regulated as this,” Webster said.

Cardine said for small charters, the costs for implementing individualized education plans for even a few students could make the difference between profitability. District schools spend 12 percent on special education overall, while charters spend just 5 percent, despite receiving the same amount for special education students. Charter schools are not allowed to discriminate based on whether students have special education needs or not, though he noted that many do attempt to avoid having too many of the students enrolled through informal means.

Cardine said as many as 20 other charter schools around the state could be in danger of closing on short notice, though none of these are located within Maricopa. He further noted the charter industry throughout the state as a whole had more debt than money coming in currently, which he said would be explained in more detail in an upcoming report from GCI.

Due to a change in the law passed last legislative session, the ASBCS is now able to close charter schools it oversees for financial reasons. Cardine believes they should have shut down the school earlier based on its financial difficulties. He reported when he initially approached the ASBCS about the problems with charter schools throughout the state, they responded that the charters’ practices were legal.

“This is going to burn you guys, you better get ahead of it,” Cardine said he told the ASBCS. “I’m not trying to sandbag you; I’m just trying to say, ‘danger, Will Robinson, if you don’t take care of it, you’re going to have these closures,’ and they were shocked. They didn’t even have a handle on how many had been closed.”

Cardine did note that newer leadership in ASBCS is taking the problem more seriously. The ASBCS did not respond before the publication of this article.

Both candidates for state superintendent of public instruction stressed the need to improve oversight of Arizona’s charter schools.

“First, we need to do everything possible to ensure that our schools, charter and traditional, do not close,” said Kathy Hoffman, the Democratic candidate. “We need to eliminate the corruption found in Arizona’s charter school policies. It’s unconscionable that there are elected officials and private interests that are making millions of dollars off of public dollars via charter schools.”

Hoffman also argued for the need to ensure students’ academic data follows them to their new school. She said policies need be enacted to require more notice before a school shuts its doors.

Frank Riggs, her Republican opponent, echoed many of her sentiments, but also argued that the majority of Arizona’s charter schools were doing good work, especially in serving predominately minority and low-income students.

Riggs argued the ASBCS, in concert with the superintendent and the Arizona Department of Education, should have receivership over charter schools for worst-case scenarios such as the closure of Camino Montessori. He also argued for reforming standards for charter school boards to ensure all members have the necessary training and that there aren’t potential conflicts of interest that could impact their oversight function.

“The State Board for charter schools on which the superintendent of public instruction sits needs to be more proactive in interceding with poor performing charter schools or charter schools that are putting up red flags,” Riggs said.

Michelle Bowman was among parents who had to scramble to find a new school for her daughter Abigail when Camino Montessori shut down unexpectedly in the middle of the semester. Photo by Jeff Kronenfeld

 

Next, InMaricopa looks into how the school’s remaining assets, including a three-acre parcel of land currently listed for sale at $700,000, will be disposed of and explore similar problems with charter schools throughout the state. 

As Camino Montessori officials and board members continue to avoid questions about the school’s closure on Oct. 5, one thing has become clear: the possibility of closure was kept from parents and employees from a week to several months.

Camino Montessori Director Judy Webster writes an open letter to the community

School officials also appear to have been less than forthcoming about its financial situation. According to the school’s annual filing with the IRS as a nonprofit, known as a 990, when its expenses were subtracted from its revenue the school showed negative $87,957 for 2015 and negative $22,474 for 2016.

The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools (AZBCS) was informed that a closure vote was imminent on Sept. 27, according to statements from AZBCS Quality Assurance and Accountability Manager Rachel Hannah.

Plans to transfer control of the school to The Charter Management Group (TCMG) apparently fell through sometime in August. The company is run by partners Doug Pike and Bil Zeleny, who currently operate three charter schools in Arizona, according to its website. Fountain Hills Charter School, one of those operated by TCMG, recently received an F grade, the lowest possible, in its most recent assessment by the AZBCS. Their other schools received D and B ratings.

At a school board meeting on June 29, a motion to accept the resignation of Judy Webster as CEO and board president passed with three yes votes and three abstentions. Motions appointing Pike as president and CEO and Zeleny as corporate secretary and treasurer also passed, though they were not implemented. Other votes saw Pike prepared to replace Webster as the school’s authorized representative with the AZBCS.

TCMG pulled out of the deal sometime in August, possibly at the school’s board meeting that month. Notes from that meeting have yet to be made public. However, when interviewed, Pike said, “I think that you can surmise that our interest was not in something that was significantly underwater.”

DJ White, a former teacher for the school who was hired in 2017 and terminated in January of 2018, claimed to have been aware of financial difficulties from “within the first four hours I was there.

“The school was starting year five and had many signs of a struggling school, in my opinion,” White said via email. “[There were] no playground structures or fenced area for kids to play, technology that was antiquated or did not work, no health insurance for employees beyond Aflac, which is supposed to be supplemental insurance.”

White claimed to have regularly spent $200 a month on school supplies, that few if any classes were at capacity and that Webster did little to no fundraising.

“All of these were red flags,” White said.

He also said the turnover rate for teachers was unusually high and the performance of students on assessment tests was poor. According to information from the Arizona Department of Education, the results for combined fall 2017 and spring 2018 state assessment tests showed only 3 percent of the school’s tested students passed in math and 38 percent for English.

White claimed Webster delayed or failed to provide evaluations or services for students with disabilities so they could obtain individualized education programs, known as IEPs, which are written plans for accommodating disabled students. He said, “the school took a huge hit financially because of having to settle a lawsuit for failure to provide services as required by law.”

Ada Marie Plaza Nieves, who taught at the school and whose son attended it, alleges Webster denied her son an evaluation for an IEP on multiple occasions. She corroborated White’s account.

“I also know the family that ended up suing the school for not providing services to their autistic child,” Plaza Nieves said in a Facebook messenger communication.

According to the most recent documents, Camino Montessori had 66 students enrolled. Parent Michelle Bowman, who called the workings at the school “fishy,” said she was able to enroll her daughter Abigail in Sequoia Pathway after the sudden closure.

Joshua Babb, another parent of a student at the school, was preparing to join the board and was surprised by its closure.

“Through the period of time leading up to the closure, Judy Webster gave no indication to myself – as someone applying for the board – that they were in any danger of closing,” Babb said.

He was not surprised by the board’s reluctance to comment.

“Most of the board are close friends of the Websters,” Babb said.

White also cited Webster’s personal ties to the school’s board as a conflict of interest.

“Judy was taking a salary of over $61,000 and did almost zero fundraising,” White said. “Any board not stacked with friends and family would have canned her for that alone, years ago.”

Webster declined to comment for the story, citing the advice of an unnamed attorney. The members of the school’s board also declined to answer questions about the cause and timing of the closure, citing non-disclosure agreements.

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Camino Montessori took parents by surprise when it closed its doors Friday.

For parents of Camino Montessori students, this fall break has been anything but a vacation. The local charter school closed on Friday.

This is the first in a series about the Camino Montessori closure.

Families were first informed about the closure through an email sent on Wednesday, only two days prior.

The sudden end took many parents by surprise, as they were under the impression the school was not only doing well financially, but was planning to expand. The school purchased land in early 2017 with plans to construct a building on the 3.06-acre property next to the library.

“This whole time, we were told that they’re expanding, they bought a property, they’re going to start building sometime this year,” said Chad Youngdale, whose daughter attended the school. “I think a lot of parents feel like they were lied to.”

The school began offering free full-day kindergarten at the beginning of this school year.

“This year, we were told they were in a good financial situation so they could take on the hit of offering full-day kindergarten,” Youngdale said. “That was obviously another lie.”

Incorporated in November 2009, the school opened its doors in 2013. According to an interview with CEO and Board President Judy Webster by InMaricopa in 2015, the school served pre-K through third grade. The school had expanded to serving pre-K through sixth grade by the time of its closure.

“Last night, after an emotional and heart-wrenching discussion of Camino’s current operational status and weighing the financial consequences should we remain open through the end of the year, close at semester break, or close sooner, the school board voted to surrender our charter effective immediately,” Webster wrote in the email announcing the closure.

Though the letter cited “unforeseen consequences,” which made continuing the school “financially impossible,” many parents want more answers about what caused the sudden closure and when the school knew the closure might be imminent.

Webster and Camino Montessori did not respond to requests for comment from InMaricopa.

“It’s kind of fishy, a lot of the stuff that’s been going on,” said Michelle Bowman, whose daughter attended the school.

The closure was decided by a unanimous vote of its board last Tuesday, according to publicly available minutes on the school’s website. However, Bowman believes the school’s property was listed for sale prior to this meeting, seeming to indicate the ball was already rolling on closure.

The notes from the Aug. 21 board meeting, the meeting prior to the closure vote, are not available online. Nearly all other notes from board meetings are available on the website.

Bowman also noted the board had its membership changed several times over the last year and questioned whether these changes were conducted properly. At the moment, parents are hearing more rumors than answers.

“I feel like this educational opportunity has been ripped away from our children because of arrogance of the school board and poor financial management,” Bowman said. “I feel like we’re now left with literally no opportunity to choose what to do for our children.”

Whatever the reasons for the closure, parents are now scrambling to find schools for their children on short notice. However, many nearby charters have wait lists, forcing some to consider driving their kids to school far from Maricopa or with radically different education styles than the Montessori students are used to.

The school leases space in Stagestop Marketplace on Maricoa-Casa Grande Highway. Owner Will Dunn said school officials signed a new, three-month lease a day ahead of the closure announcement to have time to remove Camino Montessori property.

In school ratings released Friday by the state’s Education Department, the charter received a C.

Judy Webster runs Camino Montessori in Maricopa. Photo by Raquel Hendrickson