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.)
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."
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