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Published: Wednesday, 10/19/2005

Center OKs shuttering of charter in Cleveland

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

More publicly funded charter schools may have been mismanaging millions of taxpayer dollars and are far from meeting academic standards, a member of the Lucas County Educational Service Center board said yesterday.

The Lucas County Service Center governing board voted unanimously last night to close the International Preparatory School - the oldest and largest charter school in Cleveland - because of a long list of problems there, including missing taxpayer money, low test scores, and failure to submit state-required data.

There has even been a recent allegation that three teachers were paddled by a school leader last winter.

Service center board member Joan Kuchcinski said more of the 103 charter schools the agency sponsors statewide could face probation or suspension as the board begins to closely examine their books and academic records.

"We are going to have to look at the rest of our schools and make the hard decisions about those with financial problems," Ms. Kuchcinski said. "Are they meeting their academic goals and are they being fiscally re-sponsible? We have to make sure the dollars are being spent wisely."

The service center had been blocked from closing the International Preparatory School because of a temporary restraining order, but that was dismissed last week when the school's administration withdrew its suit from Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

The school is the first in the state that has taken its sponsor to court.

Earlier this month, Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery called on the service center to close the school when she released results of audits of the charter school for fiscal years 2002 and 2003.

The 2002 audit included four findings for recovery totaling nearly $30,000 in public money that was spent illegally.

The school opened in 1999 under the sponsorship of the Ohio State Board of Education; the service center took over sponsorship in 2004.

Ms. Kuchcinski yesterday criticized the Ohio Department of Education for allowing the International Preparatory School to operate unchecked for so long.

"There was no oversight because if there had been, they would have been closed down long ago," she said. "ODE had this problem and they didn't want to deal with it. We are cleaning up their mess because they dropped the ball, and so did Betty Montgomery's office in not releasing the audits sooner."

She suspects there will be similar problems found at other charter schools the agency sponsors.

When the Ohio Department of Education stopped sponsoring charter schools in 2003 because of a change in the law, other agencies raced to become sponsors.

The service center is the largest sponsor of charter schools in the state, followed by the Toledo-based Ohio Council of Community Schools, which sponsors 46 charter schools.

J.C. Benton, spokesman for the Department of Education, said the state worked with the International Preparatory School to address its problems.

"I think you can't point fingers here," Mr. Benton said. "We had a school that was not successful, and the school found another sponsor under the change in the law."

Mr. Benton also said: "For the record, we are in favor of school choice, but not at the expense of accountability."

In the last five years, the educational service center, which is based in the Old West End section of Toledo, has gone from chartering fewer than 10 schools to more than 100.

Fifteen of the schools are in Lucas County.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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