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ABIL­ITY TO PAY TEACH­ERS IN DOUBT Weak fi­nances could lead to loss of li­cense

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY PERRY STEIN

District’s old­est char­ter schools may not be able to make pay­roll amid weak fi­nances, an of­fi­cial anal­y­sis warned.

The fi­nances of one of the first char­ter schools in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal have grown so dire that its sur­vival is threat­ened and its abil­ity to pay teach­ers in doubt, a fi­nan­cial anal­y­sis shows.

Washington Math­e­mat­ics Sci­ence Tech­nol­ogy Pub­lic Char­ter High School — founded in 1998 soon af­ter char­ter schools were al­lowed in the District — could lose its li­cense if it does not present a con­vinc­ing plan to reg­u­la­tors demon­strat­ing how it will re­main fi­nan­cially vi­able.

The agency that over­sees such in­sti­tu­tions, the D.C. Pub­lic Char­ter School Board, voted unan­i­mously at an emer­gency meet­ing Mon­day to be­gin the process of strip­ping the school of its op­er­at­ing li­cense. Washington Math­e­mat­ics, with 228 stu­dents in grades nine through 12, has ex­pe­ri­enced dwin­dling en­roll­ment over the past five years, ac­cel­er­at­ing its fi­nan­cial demise.

The char­ter school has 15 days to seek a pub­lic hear­ing be­fore the over­sight board holds a fi­nal vote on whether to re­voke the school’s op­er­at­ing li­cense. Char­ter schools are pub­licly funded in­sti­tu­tions that are pri­vately run.

Scott Pear­son, ex­ec­u­tive direc-

tor of the char­ter school board, said if the panel votes to re­voke the char­ter — or if the school de­cides to vol­un­tar­ily re­lin­quish its li­cense — the board will loan it money to re­main open for the rest of the aca­demic year.

While a dras­tic move, the re­vo­ca­tion of a char­ter is far from un­prece­dented. The District has shut­tered nearly two dozen small and large char­ter schools since 2012, although some have been able to re­main open with new lead­er­ship.

In Jan­uary, the board voted to shut down Ex­cel Academy be­cause of poor aca­demic per­for­mance and be­cause the school showed scant ev­i­dence of im­prove­ment. D.C. Pub­lic Schools, the tra­di­tional pub­lic sys­tem, reached an agree­ment to take over the 700-stu­dent all-girls school in South­east Washington.

The trou­bles for Washington Math­e­mat­ics emerge at a time when the tra­di­tional school sys­tem is com­pet­ing to keep fam­i­lies from turn­ing to char­ters. As of Oc­to­ber, D.C. Pub­lic Schools counted 48,144 stu­dents, com­pared with 43,393 in char­ter schools.

At­tor­ney Stephen Mar­cus, who rep­re­sents Washington Math­e­mat­ics, said Mon­day that the school has plans to sell its build­ing on the 1900 block of Bladens­burg Road NE in an ef­fort to re­main afloat.

Mar­cus said teach­ers are so ded­i­cated to the school’s mis­sion they have of­fered to forgo their paychecks for the next two pay cy­cles to help.

“We rec­og­nize that it has a huge fi­nan­cial deficit,” Mar­cus said. “The school has been work­ing very hard to come up with a strat­egy to ad­dress it.”

The school, the fi­nan­cial au­dit found, is ex­pected to need an in­fu­sion of more than $830,000 be­tween now and the end of the fis­cal year, which con­cludes June 30. That jumps to more than $1 mil­lion when tak­ing into ac­count pay owed to teach­ers through the end of the sum­mer. The school has a $300,000 line of credit, which it has maxed out.

An­other re­port from the char­ter board re­leased Mon­day de­clared that the school “has en­gaged in a pat­tern of fis­cal mis­man­age­ment” and said “its ex­pense struc­ture is not in line with the school’s rev­enues.”

That re­port also de­ter­mined that test scores at the school have de­clined over the past five years along with en­roll­ment. The drop in en­roll­ment con­trib­uted to the school’s fi­nan­cial trou­bles be­cause schools of­ten plan staffing and other bud­get items based on pro­jected en­roll­ment.

The school ex­pected to en­roll 284 stu­dents for the 2017-2018 aca­demic year but has only 228. Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, the school has about a third fewer stu­dents than dur­ing the 20142015 aca­demic year.

“The con­tin­ued down­ward trend in en­roll­ment has to do with many fac­tors in­clud­ing an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive high school en­vi­ron­ment, a sub­stan­dard fa­cil­ity that the school is seek­ing to change and dis­rup­tive nearby con­struc­tion projects,” the re­port reads.

The head of the school did not re­spond to a re­quest Tues­day from The Washington Post for fur­ther com­ment.

If Washington Math­e­mat­ics closes, it would leave stu­dents scram­bling to find a new school for the next aca­demic year.

The dead­line to par­tic­i­pate in the school lot­tery was March 1. If the school’s li­cense is re­voked, the char­ter board will have en­roll­ment spe­cial­ists meet with fam­i­lies to try to find an ap­pro­pri­ate school for each child.

Still, it is un­clear if stu­dents would be able to se­cure a slot at the city’s most sought-af­ter schools. The stu­dents would also be at a dis­ad­van­tage be­cause they would be seek­ing slots as up­per­class­men, and top schools with low turnover rates do not of­fer many spots to new stu­dents in the up­per grades.

Stu­dents who are not yet en­rolled at Washington Math­e­mat­ics but se­lected it as one of their top choices in the lot­tery for the next aca­demic year will have un­til Thurs­day to rear­range their pref­er­ences, ac­cord­ing to Pear­son.

“We rec­og­nize that it has a huge fi­nan­cial deficit. The school has been work­ing very hard to . . . ad­dress it.” Stephen Mar­cus, at­tor­ney

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