Frustrated so far in their attempts to close Eagle Arts Academy, Palm Beach County public school leaders are going for the nuclear option: an immediate shutdown of the troubled Wellington charter school.
Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy is proposing to close the school this week, arguing that its financial woes and evident lack of a campus or teaching staff make it unsafe for students.
The school’s “fiscal mismanagement and deteriorating financial condition have reached such a critical point that there now exists an immediate and serious danger to the health, safety and welfare of (Eagle Arts’) students,” Fennoy wrote in a letter to school board members.
Board members are expected to vote Wednesday on the proposal for an “immediate termination” of the school’s charter.
Monday afternoon, the school’s executive director, Gregory Blount, told the school parents via email that it would be “difficult” to reopen the school next month and recommended that they enroll their children in other area charter schools.
The move to close Eagle Arts comes after a series of delays thwarted the district’s first attempt to shut it down before the school year begins Aug. 13. As a charter school, Eagle Arts is publicly financed but operated by a private board of directors.
In March, the school district initiated a gradual shutdown process, one that requires 90 days’ notice and allows the school to remain open if it chooses to appeal.
Eagle Arts appealed the decision and then convinced an administrative judge to twice postpone a hearing in the case. The delays ensured that the school would be able to reopen next month before the case is decided.
This month the school district tried instead to end its monthly payments to the school, but the judge in the case last week ordered that the payments continue.
But the school district had another tool in its belt: an immediate shutdown of the school.
Under state law, the district can immediately close a charter school only if it determines that an “immediate and serious danger to the health, safety, or welfare of the charter school’s students exists.”
Eagle Arts can appeal, but under the law it wouldn’t get to stay open while it does so. The school district could take control of the school, but Fennoy recommends shutting it down instead while any appeal process plays out.
If the school board votes Wednesday to immediately close the school, it’s not clear what becomes of a $255,000 payment that the school district withheld from it this month.
An administrative judge ordered the school district to pay the money by the end of last week, but by Monday the district had not released the money, a school official with knowledge of the case told The Palm Beach Post.
It’s also unclear whether the decision to immediately close the school would override the ongoing appeal, or if the administrative judge overseeing the appeal would attempt to block the board’s new move to close it.
Neither Blount nor a school district spokeswoman responded to requests for comment on the case.
But in an email to parents Monday, Blount, the school’s founder and director, said that the district’s decision not to turn over its latest monthly payments would likely prevent the school from reopening.
“With the new school year starting in two weeks and due to the fact that the school district illegally withheld our funding, you can imagine how difficult it would be to open a school without receiving our funding or move to a new location,” he wrote.
“Many of the children who attend Eagle Arts Academy are creative visual children who do not succeed in a ‘traditional’ public school setting,” he continued. “I promise you that we are doing everything we can, but under the time constraints, we want to offer you several recommendations of other local charter schools for your consideration.”
For years, Blount has faced criticism for his combative management style and for steering hundreds of thousands of dollars in school funding into his personal businesses.
Once one of the county’s largest charter schools, Eagle Arts’ enrollment plummeted in recent years after a series of scandals and frequent staff turnover. By the end of the last school year, enrollment had fallen to about 273 students.
The 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 making its case to immediately close the school, the school district is citing its latest woes as evidence that it is an unsafe environment for children. The owner of the school’s campus filed an eviction action in June, saying that the school owed it more than $700,000 in unpaid rent.
This month, sheriff’s deputies found Blount, the school’s director, with a moving truck on the campus, records show. Blount later admitted that the school was in search of a new campus.
But the school district said that charter schools can’t move to a new campus without providing district officials with a month’s notice and copies of necessary approvals and inspections.
“Neither written notice of a change in location nor the appropriate approvals and inspections for any potential new facility has been provided, notwithstanding that hundreds of students are scheduled to return to school at (Eagle Arts) in less than three weeks,” Fennoy wrote.
The school has also had problems paying its teachers and owes them weeks of back pay. Many former teachers have resigned or found other teaching jobs, raising questions about whether the school has a sufficient teaching staff to supervise its students.
“In addition to the uncertainty surrounding (the school’s) facility, (Eagle Arts) has not provided the school district with evidence that (it) has a sufficient number of qualified staff to provide a safe and healthy learning environment or an adequate instructional program for its students,” Fennoy wrote.