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Eagle Arts charter school may reopen despite vote to close it

It stiffed its landlord for months and withheld teachers’ paychecks for weeks, but Eagle Arts Academy managed to finish a turbulent school year without closing its doors.

Now the controversial charter school may get the chance to open again in August, despite the Palm Beach County School Board’s vote to shut it down this summer.

Eagle Arts has appealed the school board’s March 14 decision to revoke its charter, and last month an administrative law judge agreed to postpone a final hearing until July 12, over the protests of the school board’s attorneys.

Attorneys say the delay means the case most likely will still be unresolved by the time classes resume Aug. 13, prohibiting the school board from closing the school or withholding payments of taxpayer money before then.

RELATED: While struggling to pay staff, Eagle Arts pays its leader for its own name

The school district had hoped to pull the plug on the controversy-plagued Wellington school over the summer to avoid disrupting students mid-year. Now administrators face the prospect that the school may enroll more students during the summer and re-open before the school’s future is known.

The school district has argued that the school must be closed because it is in “deteriorating financial condition,” has not paid rent for its 13-acre campus since September and is spending “excessive” amounts on administrative salaries while its student enrollment falls.

In a hearing last month, a school board attorney told Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham that the May 31 hearing should not be delayed because “it leaves the students of Eagle Arts and their families in an uncertain position as to whether they need to make alternative arrangements for the next school year.”

“We think that this school should be terminated and that they should not be able to open in August, and we’re trying to achieve that to the best of our ability,” school board attorney Denise Sagerholm said.

RELATED: Eagle Arts principals resign as charter school withholds teachers’ pay

In court filings, Eagle Arts countered that closing the school would be “a substantial loss” for hundreds of students and families “who excel in learning in an arts-infused environment.” It argued that it can balance its finances if given time to recruit more students.

“Our life is in jeopardy,” William Berger, an attorney for Eagle Arts, said during a preliminary hearing last month. “The termination of the charter school is being asked for.”

Though he conceded it would delay his final ruling at least until August, Laningham agreed to postpone the final hearing to give Eagle Arts’ attorneys more time to research the case.

Blount and Berger did not respond to messages seeking comment this week.

Blount has been criticized for steering more than $150,000 of school money into his own companies since the school opened in 2014. In 2016, he was forced to repay $46,000 after The Palm Beach Post revealed that the school gave him the money in the guise of a loan.

In April, The Post reported that Eagle Arts paid at least another $42,000 to one of Blount’s companies for the right to call itself Eagle Arts Academy and use an eagle logo, website and data-processing system.

Charter school experts called the school’s payments to Blount’s company troubling and said they violated the spirit of Florida’s ethics law.

RELATED: District moves to close troubled Wellington charter school

Eagle Arts admitted this year it owed its landlord more than $700,000. A spokesman for the school’s landlord, ESJ Capital Partners, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Although teachers and administrators who had paychecks delayed eventually received them, many administrators and teachers resigned during the weeks of uncertainty, leaving substitute teachers and volunteers to oversee many students in the school’s final weeks.

The tumult appears to have hurt students’ achievement. This year the percentage of third-grade students reading at grade level dropped by eight percentage points from last year, from 51 to 43 percent.

Yohana Salazar, whose three children attended the school this year, said they struggled as they watched teacher after teacher leave, and that aptitude tests administered by a school that admitted them for the fall showed they all need tutoring to be brought up to grade level.

“It was very difficult,” she said. “The last four weeks they didn’t have teachers. They only watched movies. I picked them all up at 2 p.m. each day because they were so bored from not doing anything.”

When school districts move to shut down a charter school, the school board is required to give the school 90 days’ notice. The school then has a right to appeal the decision, said Jim Pegg, director of the district’s charter school department.

In cases where students’ safety and well-being is at risk, the district can close a school immediately. But so far administrators say that student safety has not been a concern.

“We don’t want students to be impacted negatively,” Pegg said. “If we think there is some direct threat to the student safety, we’ll see if we can expedite.”

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