Troubled school under scrutiny: Test scores, budget worries, on-site day care among issues (The Post and Courier, May 25, 2010)
A North Charleston charter school set up to help at-risk children is the worst-performing school in the county, spends less than half of its budget on classroom expenses and houses a private, for-profit day care center owned by the school's two highest-paid employees.
Susan G. Boykin Academy has spent more than a half-million dollars that it didn't have during the past four school years by delaying bill payments and making arrangements to pay back its creditors.
The Charleston County School Board voted earlier this month to shut down the school at the end of this school year for poor student achievement and its lack of sound fiscal management, and the school district's attorney has alerted state authorities about concerns with the school's spending.
School officials say they're using taxpayer money as effectively as possible to educate high-poverty, low-achieving students. They say the private day care center is run separately from the school and it's intended to help pre-school students.
Boykin Academy opened in the fall of 2005 and enrolls about 130 children in kindergarten through sixth grade. The school is rated "at-risk" on the state report card, and its test scores are the lowest among district elementary schools.
Despite its students' needs, the majority of the school's money hasn't gone directly into classrooms. An analysis using the school's most recent audit showed more than 52 percent of its funds went to non-instructional or support services, far more than Charleston County's other elementary charter schools, which spent 26 percent to 38 percent of their funds that way. The skewed spending has meant the charter school hasn't bought SmartBoards, classroom computers or library books, and it hasn't employed a guidance counselor or media specialist. Such equipment and positions are standard for district schools.
An external review team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools visited the school in February as part of the charter renewal process. Their report on the school used the word "alarming" to describe the percentage of funds not dedicated to face-to-face teaching, and it criticized its number of administrators. For example, the combined salaries and benefits for two of the school's highest paid employees -- executive director and founder Dee Miller and chief operations officer Danell Miller -- totaled more than $150,000 for last school year, or roughly 10 percent of its $1.5 million budget. Dee is married to Danell...
...John Emerson, in-house attorney for Charleston County School District, said he's contacted the state attorney general's office and the State Ethics Commission because of his concern about the use of taxpayer money and property relative to the day care center. The day care center at Boykin Academy appears to be the only for-profit business of its kind run on a district school's campus, he said.
Dee Miller said she doesn't see any problem in the relationship involving her and her husband, the charter school and the day care.
When the school paid for the space now used by the day care, it spent roughly 10 percent of its budget on rent. The monthly costs included $7,500 for the main building's mobile units and $2,500 to lease 2.3 acres of land off Rivers Avenue. The external review of the school described the mobile units as in dire need of improvement, and it cited cracked ceilings, leaning steps and poor drainage on campus. The buildings and grounds neither provided "an atmosphere that is conducive to meeting health and safety requirements nor do they enable students to achieve expectations for student learning," according to the February report...
...Although charter schools are public schools funded by taxpayers' dollars, they operate largely independent of the district. They have separate boards that are supposed to oversee them, but in the case of Boykin, minutes from recent board meetings were unavailable and one-third of its board positions are vacant, according to the February review.
Besides a lack of oversight, the school hasn't been forthcoming with district officials about the number of teachers working at the school and whether they meet state mandates for its percentage of certified teachers.
About half of the school's 22 employees are teachers, but school leaders gave the names of only eight teachers when asked by district officials for a complete list of teachers. Dee Miller said she didn't list the three others because they teach special areas, such as art, but two of the names listed on the sheet supplied by the school taught special areas. Miller said the school's attorney told her she didn't need to list special area teachers after she started making the list, and she didn't think about revising the list before submitting it.
The state requires those teaching core academic areas, such as English and math, in a charter school to be certified in those areas or have a baccalaureate or graduate degree in that subject. Two of the six core academic teachers listed by the school aren't appropriately certified for the subject they teach, according to district officials, and that violates state law. The school contends it has the required percentage of certified teachers.