Quick Fade

A charter school that opened with big promises last fall quietly goes belly-up

Walking down a darkened and stuffy hallway at Fort Snelling Academy, Darryl Sedio pauses for a moment and gestures toward a small room. "I always wanted that to be a weight room. But we never had the money," he says with a shrug. "So we wound up using it for detention."

He continues down the hall to a receptionist's desk at the front of the school, where he takes a seat and digs into a pile of paperwork, scrounging for a phone number. With no remaining paid staff, Sedio, the school's director of student affairs, has volunteered to tend to the last remaining order of business: tying up the loose ends in the wake of the board's decision to shutter the year-old high school.

For the past few weeks, Sedio figures, he's been taking 10 to 20 phone calls a day from parents. Most are looking to get copies of academic records. Others are seeking advice on where their kids ought to enroll for next fall. There have also been calls from creditors, Sedio allows. The IRS, the state Department of Revenue, and other assorted private vendors are all looking to get paid. "It's hard to walk away," he says. "We all feel a little grief. A lot of the students feel betrayed. A lot of the parents, too."

When Sedio signed on at Fort Snelling Academy last year, he figured he knew better than most people the difficulties a first-year charter school like FSA would likely face. In his previous job as an administrator at the state Department of Children, Families and Learning (CFL), Sedio had worked with other charters--the independently run (but government-financed) alternative to traditional public schools. In fact, Sedio was working at CFL when he first met with the founders of Fort Snelling Academy, J. Michael Bennett, a retired University of Minnesota rhetoric professor also known for scripting a series of self-improvement and vocabulary-building audio tapes, and Peter Kordell, formerly of an investment concern called Kordell Capital Management.

Sedio was excited by the pair's vision for the school: a rigorous liberal-arts curriculum with small class sizes and a bucolic setting at Fort Snelling, a little slice of the 140-acre former military reservation on the high bluff at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. With their academic and business backgrounds, Bennett and Kordell seemed suited to their respective roles as headmaster and school president, Sedio thought. He was not alone. By the start of the 2000-2001 academic year, with the help of polished brochures and a sophisticated Web site, the school had recruited some 264 students for the fall session.

Former faculty and staff say Bennett and Kordell's strength was more in the pitch than the follow-through. "They were excellent salesmen," says former FSA science teacher John Perry. "Kordell could talk your ear off, and they did a good job of recruiting faculty. But I don't think they were very good business planners."

It didn't take long for signs of trouble to surface. In the long run the founders had hoped to house the school in a vacant clock-tower building at the dilapidated fort, which is now part of the state park system. But without a deal in place or the time or money to renovate, they settled on an expensive stopgap measure--leasing a nearby plot of empty Minneapolis Park Board land and arranging for the purchase of a temporary school building consisting of 22 modular trailers.

When classes began in September, the modular units had yet to arrive. As a result, students were bused to the campus of Normandale Community College in Bloomington for classes. Lunch was served under a tent at the Minneapolis Park Board site. For some kids and parents, the arrangement proved unsettling--a far cry from the promise of a leafy, private-school-style college prep they were expecting.

"It was a chaotic time," recalls Sedio. "I think 25 to 30 kids bailed before the building was brought to the site in October." Because charter-school funding is directly linked to the number of students, the loss hurt FSA financially. By December, the enrollment had dropped to 204 students; at year's end, the school had just 182.

In part, according to Kordell, that was because some of the students who enrolled at FSA were ill-prepared for the college-prep curriculum. "Many of them were troubled kids, and we were not a school intended to help difficult students," Kordell says. "I bet there were 50 of them that left after the first semester because they were failing."

According to Steve Dess, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, Bennett and Kordell made some other crucial missteps that ran up the school's deficit. "I think the school was done in by some poor choices early on," Dess opines. For example, he says, instead of providing bus passes for the students to take public transportation, the school leased a fleet of seven brand-new buses--running up $150,000 in unnecessary debt.

The school's administrative expenses, Dess contends, were also out of line. At the start of the year, Bennett and Kordell--who in addition to their administrative positions held two of the three seats on FSA's original board--started out at salaries of $85,000 a year. In addition, each was paid a $12,500 bonus. In Kordell's view, such compensation was appropriate, given the demands of the work. "When charter schools started out, they were mostly mom-and-pop organizations. This is a new era, with bigger institutions that require a different degree of management," he says. And, he points out, he slashed his own pay to $30,000 in December, when the school's financial woes became increasingly severe. (Bennett, who did not return City Pages' calls, remained at the school at full salary until he went on medical leave April 30.)

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