By Mary Frost
Last week the New York City Department of Education (DOE) notified two city-authorized charter schools, one in Williamsburg and another in Rockaway Beach, Queens, that it intends to shut them down. One day after that announcement, the state said that it planned to shut down two more charter schools, both in the Believe High School Network and located in Williamsburg.
Williamsburg Charter High School (WCHS), also part of the Believe High School Network but chartered by the city, has suffered from disastrous management and allegations of financial impropriety since it opened in 2006. The DOE placed it on probation last September. The school and its CEO, Eddie Calderon-Melendez, are currently under investigation by the attorney general.
“We hold all of our schools to high standards, and so when we see charter schools that are failing to live up to the goals they have set we will hold them accountable,” said Marc Sternberg, deputy chancellor for portfolio planning. “Our students deserve high-quality schools, so we will continue to take action to ensure that our students have access to those options now and in the future.”
Recy Dunn, executive director of the DOE’s Charter Schools Office, sent WCHS notice on Jan. 9 that the city would be revoking its charter at the end of the school year for a spectacular number of violations of both its charter and the law.
The school has 30 days to completely clean up all violations — a tall order — if it wants to stay in operation.
As far back as the school’s first year of operation, Calderon-Melendez was confronted by members of the original board for using the school’s credit card for his personal use, including the purchase of alcohol.
Calderon-Melendez engaged in “abusive behavior and bullying” of the chairwoman of the board, Anita Batisti, and other board members who expressed concern, according to Dunn's letter. Five board members resigned during WCHS’s first year.
In 2009 the partially reconstituted board of WCHS signed a contract with the Believe High School Network, a charter management organization created by Calderon-Melendez and other WCHS board members.
This arrangement was denied approval by the Charter Support Organization (CSO) because of serious concerns about the propriety and structure of the network.
Several WCHS trustees did not reveal that they were also getting paid by the Believe Network and the two other schools in the network, Northside and Southside. Calderon-Melendez never disclosed his salary and consultant payments from WCHS, nor the over $70,000 in consultant payments he received from the two other schools.
The New York State Office of Audit Services audit for 2009-10 found a large number of financial irregularities at WCHS, including hundreds of thousands of overpayments or misdirected funds. Questions of student safety were also raised.
According to the audit, by the middle of the 2010-11 school year, the school’s financial situation “had deteriorated to the point that it had to lay off teachers and staff, bankruptcy was being contemplated, the landlord was pursuing eviction; it owed several vendors for furniture, equipment and services rendered, and a lien had been taken against their new facility,” which also houses the other two network schools.
In Queens, the Peninsula Preparatory Academy, an elementary school, failed to meet five of the nine student performance goals laid out in their charter. This year, they received their fourth consecutive C on their progress report. The school will close at the end of the 2011-2012 school year.
The goals included having 75 percent of all students pass their state English-language exams at or above level 3. Fewer than half of the students met this goal. The students also failed to meet their goal on the state math exam.
Additionally, their board and staff leadership failed to gather performance data effectively and use it to build a strong school culture, and have not demonstrated to DOE that they are capable of providing the oversight needed to run a high-quality school, according to documents.
January 18, 2012 - 12:59pm