Delaware spares troubled charter school

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    Family Foundations Academy earned a new charter from the state of Delaware Thursday.

    The state board of education ruling means the school will remain open despite a financial scandal that saw its co-leaders fired, and its board of directors nudged into resignation.

     Secretary of Education Mark Murphy said Family Foundations, which serves 825 students in grades K through 8, moved decisively enough in the scandal’s wake to merit a new charter.

    “While there remain outstanding issues, there is also significant evidence that FFA is positioned for continued academic success and that the current board has the capacity to bring the school into operational compliance,” Murphy said in a prepared statement.

    The state board of education approved Murphy’s recommendation for renewal by a 6-1 vote.

    The school’s new charter lasts through the 2019-20 school year. That includes, however, a period of formal review that will last the next 60 working days. After that review period, the state will be able comment to offer comment, if it so chooses, revoke the school’s charter.

    EastSide to the rescue

    For the time being the school will ostensibly be run by EastSide Charter School in Wilmington, which has earned wide praise from state officials. EastSide’s willingness to intervene factored heavily into the state’s decision to keep Family Foundations open. It also sets up one of the odder arrangements in Delaware charter history, with one charter having essentially bailed another out. It is unknown how long EastSide leaders will continue to oversee operations at Family Foundations.

    Family Foundations’ issues date to an internal forensic audit that surfaced in early December. The investigation found that school leaders Sean Moore and Dr. Tennell Brewington used a school credit card to make over $94,000 in personal purchases.

    The school’s board of directors initially suspended Moore and Brewington for 90 days each. On Monday, however, it went further, firing the co-leaders for cause. Two of the board’s four members then resigned, with two others pledging to step down in the near future.

    They will be replaced by five new board members, four of which currently serve on the board of directors at EastSide. Moore and Brewington have in essence been replaced at the helm by Dr. Lamont Browne, head of school at EastSide. Browne has earned considerable acclaim for his work at EastSide, a school that serves largely minority and low-income students.

    During Thursday’s state board of education meeting, one member of the board, Dr. Terry Whittaker, referred to Browne as “superman.” Another, Randall Hughes, said, “If it weren’t for Dr. Browne, I wouldn’t be for this” renewal.

    Even Murphy singled out Browne, along with Charles McDowell, head of the board at EastSide and now Family Foundations, as well. 

    “It is significant that we have had Delawareans, members of our community, step forward to help their peers and serve more than 800 children. Right in my sight-line here is Mr. McDowell and Dr. Browne” Murphy said. “We are able to move forward today in large part because of their actions and their initiative.”

    “It’s about the kids”

    Browne insisted he has the capacity to steady Family Foundations will still running his own school.  He said he agreed to help Family Foundations, which has locations in New Castle and Wilmington, because he didn’t want the state to dissolve what he considers a nurturing academic environment.

    “It’s about the kids,” Browne said. “The kids at Family Foundations have done a great job academically and they deserve an education. We don’t want the actions of some poor-performing adults to get in the way of that.”

    Family Foundations has shown significant improvement in recent years on state tests, enough that the school met academic standards established by the state’s Charter School Accountability Committee. The state also considers the school to be in good overall financial health, even with the misdeeds of its former co-leaders.

    A network intervenes

    Browne and EastSide were recruited to Family Foundations’ aid by the Delaware Charter Schools Network, a non-profit that supports the local charter movement. Browne said he first heard from the network’s executive director, Kendall Massett, shortly before Christmas. That set off a furious two weeks of behind-the-scenes maneuvering that ultimately led EastSide to lend its name and manpower to the Family Foundations reclamation project.

    Massett sounded a note of optimism after Thursday’s decision by the state.

    “I’m real excited about this,” Massett said. “What I’m most excited about is the collaboration between two charter schools. This is what the network is all about.”

    Family Foundations remains, however, in a precarious position. Browne has no official title with the school, and it’s unclear how long he or EastSide’s board members will remain engaged with Family Foundations. Members of the state board of education expressed concern over the open-endedness of the arraignment.

    “Were we not asking the right questions?”

    Some members also puzzled over why the state didn’t catch Family Foundations earlier. Moore and Brewington’s improper spending dated back to at least 2012. The forensic audit detailing their improprieties was completed in spring 2014. The school’s lawyers recommended Family Foundations conceal that audit from the state, which did not become aware of the document until December.

    “Were we not asking the right questions,” wondered board member Barbara Rutt.

    Said her colleague, Patrick Heffernan, “We didn’t peel back the onion enough.”

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