Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clarke was not happy to read that county taxpayers could be on the hook for repaying $600,000 in debt that StudentFirst Academy has amassed in its opening months.
The school's board of directors met Monday with the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board to talk about the school's survival in the wake of financial, management and educational problems that led to the firing of two founders and top administrators in December. StudentFirst leaders said they can repay the debt over the next 2 1/2 years, relying on county money because state money can't be used for that purpose. The board also hopes to raise private donations to help, board members said.
"I would ask you to monitor developments involving this non-profit organization closely and consider being prepared to take all necessary and appropriate steps, including legal action should the Board decide to direct you to do so, to prevent the board of this non-profit from using future County tax dollars for a bailout of these current year debts," Clarke wrote. "...(W)hen the government gives money to non-governmental entities (whether they be non-profit or for-profit) to provide public services such as education, the government should take steps to make sure that the money is not wasted or misused. If a non-profit charter school can get into financial trouble this quickly after it opens (less than seven months) and need a local government bailout of its debts, it appears to me that the regulatory oversight that is in place for charter schools, particularly considering the rapid expansion of them that is underway for next year and the following year, is wholly inadequate."
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is required to pass along a per-pupil share of its county allotment to all charter schools that serve Mecklenburg students. This year CMS got $356.6 million from the county and must pass along money for just over 10,800 charter students.
In a recent report to the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, StudentFirst said it gets $74,780 a month in local money for just under 300 students enrolled there.
Paying back the debt, which includes bank loans and overdue bills to vendors, wouldn't force the county to pay StudentFirst extra. Instead, the payment plan would eat into the money available to pay for the education of next year's students. The StudentFirst board has already cut back staff and sacrificed many of the academic extras that were promised so they can bring spending under control.
The state advisory board has given StudentFirst's board until April to present a detailed financial and academic recovery plan. Based on that, the advisory board will decide whether to recommend that the N.C. Board of Education revoke the charter or let StudentFirst remain open.
County Commissioner Bill James agreed that he'd like to protect county money -- "I am generally in favor of oversight for everyone, even CMS" -- but voiced skepticism that the current system allows that.
Clarke said he expects county and CMS officials to continue talks about oversight of charter schools and local spending.