Charter school on thin ice

As audit nears, School Board’s sponsorship of 100 Academy in question


Steve Marcus

Principal Hugh Wallace hands out trophies to kindergarten students, from back, Jordan Butler, Cache Robinson and Artie Jones during a spelling bee at 100 Academy of Excellence, a North Las Vegas charter school, in December. The school has seen enrollment drop 20 percent as its second year ends.

Tue, Jun 10, 2008 (2 a.m.)

When 100 Academy of Excellence charter school opened in 2006, it was touted as a lighthouse of education in North Las Vegas, a place where at-risk students would have a challenging curriculum, mentors and superior teachers.

Imagine Schools Inc., a Virginia-based company, spent more than $9 million building the campus and handled everything from hiring the principal to providing the textbooks. The academy launched with 501 students.

The academy appeared to be gaining momentum when it showed 634 students in the fall of 2007, according to the state. But by the time school let out for the summer, the enrollment had dropped back down to 525.

State education officials have concerns about 100 Academy that go beyond enrollment, however. Their issues include Imagine Schools’ business practices and its contract with the academy. There are also questions about whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth out of the $7 million the state has provided 100 Academy.

The Clark County School District is to wrap up its annual audit of its charter schools this week. If there are serious deficiencies at 100 Academy, district staff could recommend that the School Board revoke its sponsorship.

In the past, evidence was presented to the School Board about 100 Academy’s failure to comply with certain requirements, including balancing its budget.

Academy officials concede this has been a tough year. They have struggled to hire and keep qualified teachers. Persuading families to adhere to the school’s rules, particularly the dress code and attendance requirements, has also proved challenging. But they say Imagine Schools’ own assessments indicate students are making strides academically.

For the School Board, however, the true measurement will come in late July with the results of the standardized tests taken by students throughout the district. If the scores of 100 Academy’s students are low, the School Board may be less willing to view the academy’s other problems as growing pains.

100 Academy is itself an important test for the state’s charter school laws, which are expected to be debated yet again in the 2009 Legislature.

The academy is a bit of an oddity, a taxpayer-supported school set up by an outside educational management organization. It has been a tricky arrangement for Imagine because while other states allow for-profit charter schools, Nevada does not. Nevada, instead, has set itself up for “mom-and-pop” charter schools, said Dennis Bakke, chief executive and president of Imagine Schools, which operates 51 campuses in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Imagine is moving ahead with plans to open its second Clark County campus, Imagine School in the Valle, this fall in Durango Hills, under sponsorship granted in 2006 by the State Board of Education. But, citing concerns related to the track record of 100 Academy, state officials last month shot down the company’s plans to open two additional campuses in the Las Vegas Valley.

Ultimately, that hurts the entire School District, Bakke said.

“The only way Clark County’s public schools are going to get better is people like us competing for their students,” he said. “Then the parents are back in charge and deciding whether or not these are good schools.”


During a recent visit to 100 Academy, the Sun spoke with a half-dozen parents outside the school. None of them planned to re-enroll their children for the 2008-09 academic year.

For Dana Tenant, the last straw was when she walked her daughter to class early last month and discovered a room full of unsupervised first graders. After waiting with several other parents for the teacher, Tenant said, she went to the front office.

“They told me, ‘Oh, she must be out of town,’ ” Tenant said, shaking her head. “To me, you’re supposed to have these things in place.”

Tenant said faculty absences are frequent and teachers are often seen in the morning hurrying into the building at the same time as their students.

“The professionalism is not there,” Tenant said.

The school has tremendous potential, Tenant said, but she can’t afford to wait for the problems to be fixed.

“We gave it two years, but this is my child,” Tenant said. “She only gets one chance to go to school.”

Another mother, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she researched Imagine Schools before enrolling her child at 100 Academy. She was impressed with the rigor of the curriculum and found the company’s schools had done well academically in several states.

The clincher was the 100 Black Men of Las Vegas’ pledge that its members would serve as mentors and classroom volunteers. That commitment was also what persuaded the School Board to go against the district staff’s recommendation and sponsor the school in April 2006.

However, there has been a sharp drop in involvement by the community group in school activities, particularly in the past six months, the mother told the Sun.

“Last year, they were so visible everywhere,” she said. “This year, I see them every now and again. It’s completely different.”

A core group of about a half-dozen of the 100 Black Men members volunteer regularly at the academy, and others drop by for occasional visits or to help with special events, said Tami Bass, president of the school’s governing board. The organization recently launched a robotics club at the school, and typically at least one member of 100 Black Men can be found on campus during a regular school day, she said.

Keyosha Bowden, who has four children at 100 Academy, says the elementary school program is excellent, with a challenging curriculum and high-quality instruction. Bowden, a district teaching assistant, said her fourth grade son is working above his grade level and completing assignments that would challenge some of the high school students she works with at one of the district’s behavior schools.

The middle school program, which launched in the fall, is a different story, Bowden said. She received her older son’s report card last month and discovered he was failing three classes. When she asked the teacher why no warning notices had been sent home, Bowden said, she was told the notes had been given to her son to deliver.

Bowden said she also never received a phone call from the school to discuss her son’s dismal academic performance.

“You cannot fail a student without notifying the parents,” said Bowden, who is working toward her bachelor’s degree so she can become a licensed teacher. “I personally send out the unsatisfactory notices for the kids (at the behavior school). I know the district regulation, and as far as I know 100 Academy has to follow the same rules.”


The Nevada Education Department has had its own complaints about the academy.

Imagine has pledged to correct an apparent violation of the state’s procurement laws. For expenditures valued at more than $50,000, local governments, which include charter school governing boards, are required to use a competitive bidding process. The academy, however, leases nearly everything from Imagine and its affiliated companies — its building, furniture, textbooks. Rent on the school building alone tops $1.3 million annually.

Imagine officials say they were not aware of the state’s procurement law, and the academy will be brought into full compliance. Instead of Imagine’s deciding on the suppliers, the final decisions will be left up to the governing board, a group of community representatives including three licensed educators, who under state law are supposed to oversee the school.

The governing board’s 2007 evaluation of Imagine, an annual report required by state law, pointed out several other problems:

• Imagine miscounted the number of students enrolled, resulting in a loss of $176,000 in state money. By the time the company got around to challenging the findings six months later, state officials said, it was too late to change the amount of funding.

• The breakfast and lunch program fell $85,000 into debt, and Imagine failed to collect reimbursements from the district for students who qualified for free and reduced-price meals.

• Students performed poorly on standardized tests given in spring 2007, scoring lower than most of their peers at surrounding elementary schools as well as below the district and statewide averages. But Imagine officials point out that test results in a school’s first year of operation are typically considered a baseline, and significant improvement is expected when the latest results are released in July.

The evaluation itself has also raised questions because two versions were submitted to the School District and the state for review.

The original draft was scathing — with “neglectful,” “egregious,” “incompetent” and “unprofessional” among the choice words describing the campus’s management. But after Imagine officials protested, the governing board had second thoughts. Many of the most critical comments were missing from the second version, which also raised the overall score to a level that avoided triggering a state review.

Tom McCormack, the Education Department’s charter schools consultant, said his office was aware the evaluation had been revised, “and it is concerning to us.”

Bass, the governing board’s president, said the evaluation was rewritten after two of the five board members argued that Imagine Schools was showing good faith. In addition to forgiving $285,000 in debt (on the orders of the Nevada Education Department), the company had agreed to collect its operating fee only if the academy had a surplus. The fee is 12 percent of the per-pupil funding the academy receives from the state, which for the 2007 fiscal year was just less than $2.4 million. That puts Imagine’s cut at $288,000.

“The first evaluation we were clear about it, we knew what we wanted to say,” Bass said. “Imagine (staff) read it and they look at it as us persecuting them.”

Ted Watkins, past president of 100 Black Men of Las Vegas and a member of the school’s governing board since its inception, said the board added several members after the first evaluation was written and they approached the review process from a more dispassionate standpoint, so it made sense to revise the evaluation. He said he was comfortable with the revised version because “the spirit of what was intended was still communicated very well.”

Bass said she didn’t fight as hard as she might have for the first version of the evaluation because she realized how dependent 100 Academy is on Imagine. If the governing board decided to sever its ties, 100 Academy would be left without a facility, teachers, staff and even books. “Everything belongs to Imagine,” Bass said.

That’s one reason the charter school’s governing board voted June 2 to renew its two-year contract with Imagine Schools.

Bakke, Imagine’s chief executive, said his company remains committed to 100 Academy’s long-term success. Bakke said Imagine has always been upfront about the nature of its business model and the amount of control the company expects to retain over staffing, budgetary decisions and daily operations.

“It’s our school as much as anyone else’s school,” Bakke said. “We’ve made it very clear that if you don’t trust us, don’t start with us, because we are there forever. It’s very difficult to unwind this marriage, and it was meant to be that way.”

The Evaluation

As required by law, the governing board of 100 Academy of Excellence charter school completed a written evaluation of Imagine Schools Inc., the out-of-state “education management organization” (often called an “EMO” by educators) hired to manage the North Las Vegas campus. In addition to the final version of the evaluation submitted to the state, the Las Vegas Sun obtained a copy of the evaluation in its original form, before Imagine Schools agreed to forgive $285,000 in debt owed by 100 Academy. There are marked differences between the two versions, as the following excerpts show:

The assessment of Imagine School’s effectiveness in managing and motivating others:

Original version: Imagine’s “failure to oversee the cafeteria and the before and after-school program led to abuse and neglect. Both programs ended in deficit. The lack of attention to the master register and the condition of the student files and what is required led to 36 students being disallowed, and the further non-action of the EMO by not aggressively pursuing those students’ allowance in our count was unprofessional and incompetent. There is no plausible explanation for this neglect of duties ... Furthermore, Imagine’s lack of oversight of administrative staff in the front office has caused the schools to fall short of its targeted enrollment for 2007-08. No communication was sent to parents at the end of the 2006-07 school year in regards to parents’ intentions on having their children attend the school for 2007-08 ...The governing body was informed by Imagine all summer long that our expected student population was at or above 800 students. As of Sept. 5, 2007 student enrollment at the school is 627 students.”

Rating: 1 (Performance is unacceptable and fails to meet standards and expectations established for the job. Improvement mandatory.)

Revised version: “Imagine Schools did a good job of managing and motivating the staff, parents and students of 100 Academy of Excellence through a difficult first year ... Without sufficient motivation of staff, the safety and security of more than 500 children would not have been possible. The academy staff worked together, through Imagine’s management, to keep focused on academics, discipline and behavior ... Additionally, Imagine’s management and motivation kept enrollment in our first year steady all year. Attendance remained in the 90+ percent level. We believe that is a credit to the staff hired to serve students in our inaugural year as well as the association with the 100 Black Men who consistently worked with Imagine Schools and helped provide the ongoing enthusiasm surrounding this school.”

Rating: 3 (Performance consistently meets the standards and expectations established for the job.)

The assessment of Imagine’s management of the budget:

Original version: “Imagine operated the school into a deficit due to a lack of oversight in a number of areas ... the school lunch breakfast and lunch program had a deficit of approximately $85,163. The deficit for the program was caused by a lack of planning and lack of oversight on the part of Imagine. With a large portion of the student population eligible for free or reduced lunches, there is no acceptable reason as to why Imagine did not have the proper processes in place to collect reimbursement from the Clark County School District for those students who qualify ... Imagine entered the school into various leases that were above market lease rates. Much of the items leased were do without the governing board’s full understanding and/or consent of the lease. Many of the items could have been purchased with grant funds if planned properly ... The aggregate debt for the school during the 2006-07 school year was in excess of $500,000. Imagine did deposit $271,000 into the school’s general account to offset losses of Nevada Department of Education money and the breakfast/lunch program. In addition, Vickie Frazier-Williams contributed another $35,000 via a fundraiser she coordinated ... Due to the lack of Imagine’s ability to properly budget the school within the revenue stream received, the governing board has taken control of the budgeting process and implementing tighter oversight of expenditures.”

Rating: 1 (Performance is unacceptable and fails to meet standards and expectations established for the job. Improvement mandatory.)

Revised version: “Imagine Schools did not provide sufficient oversight of the food service program. This program ended in deficit as a result of funs spent to feed students for nearly five months before the Clark County School District and the National School Lunch Program was instituted. During that time, Imagine Schools utilized private catering companies to provide food service at a cost above the budgeted amount. The regional vice president did, however, raise $35,000 in private donations, and then Imagine donated the remaining $55,000 to offset the deficit. Imagine Schools has consistently stated that its experience in charter school operations led them to expect a deficit in the first year of operation. It is noted that Imagine has kept its promise to provide financial stability an support to 100 Academy in this first year of operations ... Imagine further stuck to their word of financial support by waiving their operating fee in order to allow the school to have a balanced budget. Imagine has also agreed that going forward, their operating fee will be contingent upon the availability of a surplus at year’s end.”

Rating: 2 (Performance has not fully met the standards an expectations of the job. Improvement necessary.)

The assessment of Imagine’s communication with the governing board:

Original version: “The governing board was not kept abreast on many areas that should have been reported. Money decisions, contract decisions, potentially litigious issues were never reported to the board. The board heard from the EMO during regularly scheduled monthly meetings and the report was typically generic.”

Rating level: 2 (Performance has not fully met the standards an expectations of the job. Improvement necessary.)

Revised version: >“Imagine Schools communicated with this governing board at each regularly scheduled board meeting through a principal’s report and, prior to that, directly through the regional vice president. On several occasions, Imagine Schools scheduled and held board training retreats and meetings in an attempt to acquaint and better familiarize board members on various aspects of operations like the middle schools expansion and construction plans, enrollment and Nevada charter school law. However, the governing board believes this is an area in need of improvement and will seek to be more specific in communicating to Imagine Schools the kinds of reports, progress and contract decisions it needs.”

Rating: 2 (Performance has not fully met the standards an expectations of the job. Improvement necessary.)

The assessment of the effectiveness of the decision-making process:

Original version: “We are facing a deficit for the 2007-08 school year and we ran in deficit for the 2006-07 school year. The decision not to pursue the disallowed students until April of this year was neglectful at best. The decision not to aggressively equip the cafeteria and oversee the breakfast and lunch program was egregious ... the decision to expand the school to accommodate grades 6-8 was poorly planned. The 100 Black Men of Las Vegas Inc. and Imagine Schools entered into this partnership to see this school come into existence based on Imagine’s representation of themselves as being professionals at efficiently managing charters. The two areas Imagine was supposed to oversee and ensure efficiency was academically and financially. Due to the decisions made by Imagine, the school has not succeeded in either of these areas.”

Rating: 1 (Performance is unacceptable and fails to meet standards and expectations established for the job. Improvement mandatory.)

Revised version: "The decision not to pursue the disallowed students until April of this year was neglectful at best. The decision not to aggressively equip the cafeteria and oversee the breakfast and lunch program was egregious ... There was no oversight of the before and after school program. That program also ended the year in a deficit. The deficit is the result of non-payment by parents, many of whom withdrew their children from the school, still without payment. Collection of those payments is the responsibility of Imagine. However, it should be noted that Imagine Schools was able to get the school accepted as an Economic Opportunity Board site thus allowing parents to get their after care bill greatly reduced or free. This was a benefit to both parents and the school. The decision to expand the school to accommodate grades 6-8 was poorly planned .... The 100 Black Men of Las Vegas Inc. and Imagine Schools entered into this partnership to see this school come into existence based on Imagine’s representation of themselves as being professionals at efficiently managing charters. We know the majority of this year’s struggles were the result of 100 Academy of Excellence being a startup school. Now that the infrastructure is in place with the building and staff, we anticipate and expect Imagine to run a more efficient and economically sustainable operation.”

Rating: 2 (Performance has not fully met the standards an expectations of the job. Improvement necessary.)

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