A principal fired, a campus on thin ice

Management drops ax at NLV charter academy


Steve Marcus

Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc. recently removed Hugh Wallace as principal of the beleaguered 100 Academy of Excellence in North Las Vegas. State officials have said Imagine’s managing goes beyond what the law allows.

Thu, Nov 13, 2008 (2 a.m.)

In the past year, education officials have become increasingly concerned about the management of the North Las Vegas charter school 100 Academy of Excellence. The issues have ranged from a lack of qualified to teachers to poor student performance and shoddy bookkeeping.

Beyond the Sun

And now, the school’s principal, Hugh Wallace, has been fired.

“We tried for a long time to make it work,” said Dennis Bakke, president and chief executive of Imagine Schools Inc., the Virginia-based company hired to manage the campus. “We need a better leader.”

A search is under way for a replacement, Bakke said.

Wallace could not be immediately reached for comment.

It’s the latest bump in the road for the struggling charter school, which has been sponsored by the Clark County School Board since 2006.

Last month, Wallace told an administrator with the Nevada Education Department that the academy was short on cash and textbooks.

Gary Horton, who oversees charter school funding for the Nevada Education Department, said the academy owes the state about $93,000 in fees for the 2008 fiscal year. Wallace also told Horton the academy was short $20,000 for textbooks, Horton said.

“I believe this school is in serious financial and academic trouble,” Horton wrote in a letter to Education Department staff.

The school is also on the state’s “watch” list after falling short of the federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks for student performance. But Imagine officials say students still made significant academic gains.

The academy serves about 600 at-risk minority students in grades K-7, many from low-income households. A second campus, managed by Imagine Schools and sponsored by the State Board of Education, opened in September. Imagine School in the Valle has about 250 K-5 students.

Charter schools have more leeway with instructional methods and staffing and receive the same per-pupil funding as traditional public campuses. They must still meet many of the same state requirements for student achievement, curriculum and financial reporting.

Applications are pending with the State Board for two more Las Vegas Valley campuses that would be affiliated with Imagine Schools.

Nevada doesn’t allow for-profit charter schools, but a campus may hire an “educational management organization,” or EMO, to provide a range of services.

Imagine Schools provides its Clark County campuses with facilities, textbooks and teachers.

State education officials have said Imagine Schools’ involvement at 100 Academy goes too far, eclipsing the authority of the schools’ governing body, which by law is ultimately responsible for daily operations.

The Clark County School Board monitors the campus for compliance with state statutes, but there are strict limits on the level of its involvement, said Edward Goldman, associate superintendent of the district’s education services division.

“Monitoring” doesn’t mean “oversight,” Goldman said.

“Do we get to control their class sizes? Absolutely not,” he said. “When it comes down to who their principal is, we have no role in that whatsoever.”

Imagine Schools operates 73 campuses in 12 states. Nationally, the company’s academic performance has been mixed, with some schools making strong gains and others slipping slightly or remaining static.

The School Board was initially resistant to Imagine Schools’ bid to do business here. The involvement of 100 Black Men of Las Vegas, a nonprofit community organization, turned the tide in the company’s favor. The group’s members serve as mentors at the school.

Kenton Williams, president of 100 Black Men of Las Vegas, said he was notified of Wallace’s firing Tuesday. The organization has no involvement with the management of the campus, beyond having two of its members serve on the governing board, Williams said.

“We try to be supportive and focus on the children,” said Williams. “Any time you start something new, you have challenges. But we also have successes.”

To be sure, starting a charter school is no easy undertaking. Even the academy’s harshest critics say they don’t doubt the good intentions of 100 Black Men of Las Vegas or the volunteers who make up the school’s governing board.

But the school has struggled to hire and retain qualified teachers. There has also been significant turnover on the governing board.

In October 2007, the Clark County School Board considered revoking 100 Academy’s charter when the school was unable to submit a balanced budget. The issue was resolved when Imagine Schools forgave $285,000 in fees.

There was also concern that 100 Academy spent about 25 percent of its per-pupil funding — $1.5 million — on rent. (The landlord is School House Finance LLC, an affiliate of Imagine Schools.)

Trustees wanted 100 Academy’s principal to report to the school’s governing body, rather than an Imagine Schools employee. But because the law doesn’t specifically prohibit such arrangements, trustees said they couldn’t force the school to comply.

Tanya Flanagan, a member of 100 Academy’s governing board, said board members were notified Friday that Wallace had been terminated. She said she couldn’t discuss the reasons behind the move, citing personnel confidentiality.

As for concerns that Imagine, and not the school’s governing board, controls hiring — and firing — at the academy, Flanagan said the board has a good working relationship with the management company.

“It’s something of a building relationship as the school moves forward,” she said. “I feel confident in saying the board has a strong voice and a vested interest in the environment of the school.”

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