Charter high school wins courtroom battle to remain open

 A nine-month effort by the Department of Education to shutter a troubled charter school ended today when a judge ruled in favor of keeping it open.

The decision this morning came hours before the school, Williamsburg Charter High School, is scheduled to host its graduation ceremony, where 118 students will receive their diplomas. It will also mean that the nearly 900 students who remain at the school will not need to find a new one next fall. About 20 students left in recent months because of the uncertainty that loomed from the court case.

“It’s been a great day,” said Joseph Cardarelli, a director at the school. “There were a lot of anxious parents, but it seems like a lot of  people stayed in there until the end.”

Kings County Supreme Court Judge Ellen Spodek wrote in her decision today that the process that the DOE’s charter school office followed to revoke the the school’s charter was “riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a certain level of transparency.”

Williamsburg Charter was placed on probation last September and given an ultimatum to sever ties with its founder, Eddie Calderone-Melendez, and the network he operated, or face closure. Calderone-Melendez had been under investigation for tax fraud since last spring and was indicted in April.

The charter school office ruled that the school did not move fast enough to divorce itself from Calderone-Melendez and moved to revoke its charter in January. The school fought back in court and in the streets. It hired a lawyer from Syracuse to lead the case and organized protests in front of DOE headquarters. The school won an early court victory to hold its annual enrollment lottery for incoming ninth graders while the larger case was being decided.

Spodek said that charter school office, which was the school’s authorizer, had plenty of opportunities to warn the school about its problems, but repeatedly failed to do so. The DOE renewed the school’s charter in 2009 for a five-year term, despite the fact that many of the financial and governance problems that existed with the school took prior to then.

And after the city conducted its annual site visit to the school in May 2011, Spodek wrote in her decision that the subsequent “report did not stress a sense of urgency, nor did it establish actual deadlines for task completion in which WCHS could be held accountable.”

City attorney Andrew Rauchberg, who handled the case for the Department of Education, said he disagreed with the decision and planned to pursue an appeal.

Williamsburg Charter school encountered financial problems when it moved into a $30 million building but struggled to uphold its 1,000-student enrollment targets. The DOE also found the school to have “incredible cash flow problems,” in part because of its relationship with the Believe Network, which received $2 million in management fees. The school is now $5 million in debt and the DOE concluded that it had “no credible financial plan,” according to court papers.

Spodek’s decision also establishes the importance of public access during the charter revocation process. A March hearing that the DOE “intended to be public, yet a number of parents and [students] state that they were told by the DOE that they would not be able to attend the hearing.”

Spodek said that a key provision of charter law was that the public be given “appropriate notification” at each significant stage of the chartering process.

Despite the victory, Williamsburg Charter faces other hurdles. The school is hoping to enroll 300 students next year, but has filled just 110 of those seats so far, according to Patrick Kern, director of recruitment at the Believe Network.

Kern said he expected to join Williamsburg Charter next month to help the school increase those numbers.

”There has been no formal request to have Kern work for Williamsburg,” said Williamsburg’s lawyer Ellen Kimatian Eagen.

“We have a strong plan for enrollment to get our numbers up,” Cardarelli said. “We have kids who have already transferred but now they want to come back. I’m confident that we can get our enrollment to where it needs to be.”

WCHS Court Decision 6-28-12