Despite FSA's chronic financial difficulties, by most accounts, the school was an academic success. According to teacher Perry, 98 percent of the students who took the state writing test passed. "For the ones that lasted the full year, I think it was a real good experience," says Perry.
Jesse Schindler, a sophomore from Minneapolis, agrees. "I learned more in a year at FSA than in my whole previous education. It was a really great school." Schindler says she benefited from both the small class sizes and individualized attention from teachers. And despite the chaos of the early months, she enjoyed the social atmosphere at FSA. "It wasn't like a big school, where you feel sick to your stomach half the time. You knew everyone. It was almost like a family."
Still, by mid-year, the school's financial difficulties were plainly apparent to staff and students' families alike. In January, the school elected a new board, which included both parents and faculty. Minutes from the board's February 13 meeting characterized the finances as "bleak but not hopeless," and estimated the school's debt load at $300,000.
Perry, who along with Sedio served on the board, says the money woes led to tension between new board members and the school's founders. "It was very strained," Perry says. "People were polite, but it was difficult." As board members learned more details about Kordell's and Bennett's contracts, those tensions worsened. Under one provision of the founders' contracts, Kordell and Bennett were each to be paid a $90,000 bonus in the event the school received public assistance for renovating the old buildings on the fort.
In the middle of the board's June meeting, Kordell abruptly resigned as board chair. "Kordell wanted us to accept a resignation document that would guarantee him his bonus if we got a new lease signed," Perry says, adding that the board--upset that the school's staff hadn't been paid for their final month of work--rejected the proposal. But even then, says Perry, there was still hope that the school might survive.
For his part, Kordell says the bonus provision was put in place to compensate him and Bennett for their work in setting up the school. "I was just saying that I wanted to reserve my right to present that claim and I wanted to put a little pressure on the board to do right by Dr. Bennett," Kordell explains. "But I wasn't really going to ask for [the bonus]."
By the time of the board's last meeting, July 10, the school had made considerable progress in dealing with its debt. According to Perry, the board had settled on a plan that--had the school managed to maintain 216 students for a full year--could have paid off the debt. But by then FSA had commitments from just 76 students to return in the fall, and Sedio and others doubted they would be able to recruit enough students to turn the corner. The board voted, by a 5-to-1 margin, to close the school.
"I just felt like we had to stop the bleeding," Sedio says. "It was unfair to keep the kids hanging on."
According to state Rep. Matt Entenza (DFL-St. Paul), there is nothing complicated about the missteps that led to FSA's failure. "They were top-heavy, with too many administrators, and they were paying themselves salaries that would have been appropriate for a superintendent of a district with ten times the students. That was the real killer," observes Entenza, who conducted a wide-ranging review of charter-school finances this winter. "As the charter movement has grown, these problems have started popping up, and not enough people are paying attention to it."
During the last legislative session, Entenza did succeed in crafting a modest series of reforms of the state's charter-school law, including tighter financial-reporting requirements and a conflict-of-interest provision prohibiting officers of the management companies that administer the schools from serving on their boards. "But none of that is a guarantee," he adds. "If you have a board that's not sharp enough, you are going to wind up with problems."
As Darryl Sedio now sees it, a strong and independent board ought to be the first order of business with any charter school. Despite his disappointment with FSA's closure, Sedio says, he hasn't lost faith in the charter-school concept. With the right offer, he'd consider giving it another try.
For students like Jesse Schindler, however, the school's failure left a bitter aftertaste. "I'm kind of bummed that I'll have to go back to Minneapolis public schools," Schindler says. But she rules out the idea of trying to find a better fit at another charter. "I just don't think I could handle the idea of having another school I really like close down."