The school board can’t close Eagle Arts, so it’s cutting off its money

Palm Beach County public school leaders can’t seem to shut down Eagle Arts Academy, so they’re trying the next best thing: shutting off the school’s money.

Frustrated in their efforts to close the controversial Wellington charter school, school district leaders have decided to stop paying it until a judge determines the school’s final fate.

If successful, the move could prevent the school from opening again when classes resume Aug. 13, even if it is technically still permitted to operate. It also means the school’s teachers will not receive summer paychecks they were due to receive this week.

The school district this week withheld the school’s monthly $255,000 check — the school’s only significant source of income — and instead filed a lawsuit asking a judge to sign off on its decision not to pay Eagle Arts while the school appeals the school board’s decision to close it.

Charter schools are privately managed but are financed by state tax dollars, which the school district distributes to them based on their student enrollment.

RELATED: Eagle Arts charter school may reopen despite vote to close it

The district argues that the school’s financial condition is too dire to continue operating and that, even though the money is intended for use in the new budget year, the school has indicated it would spend the money on paychecks for teachers and other debts from the previous budget year, which ended last month.

Along with its lawsuit, the school district said it submitted a check for the amount owed, asking the county clerk to hold it until the case is resolved.

“Requesting the court to hold on to these funds while the legal process is completed is a prudent request to safeguard taxpayer dollars,” Mike Burke, the school district’s chief financial officer, told The Palm Beach Post via email.

An administrative law judge is scheduled to rule on whether the school board’s decision to close the school was appropriate. A hearing has been rescheduled for Aug. 9.

If the judge allows the school to remain open, the district says it will pay it all the money withheld.

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.

The K-8 school once had more than 700 students, but its enrollment fell last school year to about 425.

RELATED: District moves to close troubled Wellington charter school

The school’s executive director, Gregory Blount, has been criticized for steering hundreds of thousands of dollars from the school into his own companies since the school opened in 2014.

The school district had hoped to shut down Eagle Arts this summer, but the school appealed the decision to terminate its charter, then persuaded an administrative law judge to twice postpone a hearing in the case, delaying it from May until August.

The delays assured that the school would be able to reopen in the fall despite a history of financial controversies, mounting debt and accusations of mismanagement.

But by cutting off the school’s money, the district may have found a way to prevent it from reopening when school begins on Aug. 13.

A judge could order the school district to resume the payments, but such a ruling might not come for several weeks or months. In the meantime, holding back the money would make it difficult for Eagle Arts to hire teachers and pay other expenses necessary to reopen.

A casualty of the school district’s decision is summer pay for the school’s teachers and staff. Even though the school is closed for the summer, teachers receive their salaries staggered across the entire calendar year. The latest paycheck was due Wednesday.

But in a message to the school’s employees, Blount said he would not be able to pay teachers this week due to the district’s decision.

“We will be notifying the judge in our case of the school district’s default to fund us today to make our payroll payments to our staff and teachers,” Blount wrote. “I know this is not the news any of us what to hear, but I promise you we will pursue every effort to resolve this as quickly as possible.”

William Berger, an attorney for Eagle Arts, did not respond to a request for comment.

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