RALEIGH — Money and management problems are forcing the sudden closing of a North Carolina charter school less than two months before the end of the academic year, pushing almost 300 students to find new classrooms.
StudentFirst Academy Charter School in Charlotte said Thursday it will shut its doors in less than two weeks on April 15. The decision was orchestrated with state regulators. The state Board of Education on Wednesday revoked the school's charter, or special permission to operate a public school with fewer rules than traditional classrooms.
The closing comes as the school's third- and eighth-graders were about to take end-of-grade achievement tests.
The mid-year closing of a charter school is a rare step taken to protect taxpayer money. The last time was eight years ago when charter schools in Catawba and Rowan counties were closed because of low enrollment and financial trouble.
Charter schools are public schools allowed more flexibility in operations and instruction as long as they adhere to standards spelled out in their state-issued operating agreement, or charter. StudentsFirst marks the 40th to be closed since 1997 after North Carolina began experimenting with the less-regulated schools. Thirty were closed within the first five years after charters first appeared, according to state education agency data.
"The large majority of those closures over a period of years have related to financial mismanagement," said Eddie Goodall, a former state senator and charter school founder who heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association. "What I hope people realize is if this (school's) board has in fact mismanaged our state's funds, then they should be removed from operating a charter school. That is a good thing."
StudentFirst Academy got about $3 million a year in public funding and employed almost 30 people to educate about 290 kindergarten through 8th grade students, said Victor Mack, chairman of the school's governing board.
The school was in its first year as a taxpayer-supported charter school after more than a decade as a much smaller private school instructing struggling urban children from a Baptist church, The Charlotte Observer reported earlier this year.
Last month, StudentFirst officials appeared before the state's charter school advisory board and acknowledged that the school had racked up about $600,000 in bank debt and unpaid bills, said Joel Medley, director of the state's Office of Charter Schools.
Mack blamed the closing in part on a lawsuit filed by the school's founders — whom the board fired amid allegations of mismanagement, nepotism and financial irregularities — and publicity of the school's plight. Those problems and decreased funding "severely hampered" the school's ability to function, Mack said in an emailed statement Thursday.
North Carolina is seeing a rapid expansion of charter schools since a statewide limit was lifted in 2011. Two dozen opened this year and there could be more than 200 statewide by in 2015, double the number that existed before state legislators lifted the cap.