Minnesota Business Academy

Another Minnesota charter school is closing shop, victim of too many expenses and too few students. St. Paul's Minnesota Business Academy will shut down for good at the end of the school year.

One of the state's highest-profile charter schools opened to much fanfare six years ago. Its demise dramatizes the fate that befalls many charter schools. While the vast majority of the state's 123 charters are thriving, others struggle on, believing they'll attract more kids than the realities of the market allow - until it's too late…

The school had the backing of then St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, city business leaders and former Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson, who once served as MBA's chief education officer. It moved into the former Science Museum of Minnesota building in 2000.

But refurbishing the old museum into a high school cost nearly $10 million, debt that required an enrollment of 440 to cover costs. It never came close, said Executive Director Jerry Neff. Last summer, the school persuaded St. Paul to forgive half its debt. It wasn't enough. It still needed 315 pupils this year to meet its budget. In September, 240 showed up. Currently, 188 students are enrolled and 61 will graduate in June, Neff said.

School officials told students about the closing Thursday. Many were crushed…
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THE BUSINESS MODEL FAILS THE MINNESOTA BUSINESS ACADEMY; Apr. 27 2006; City Pages (Minneapolis, MN) 
Last summer, the St. Paul City Council voted to forgive a $750,000 loan to the Minnesota Business Academy, an experimental charter school that enjoyed the backing of many prominent politicians and business people. At the time, there was considerable skepticism voiced over the bail out. The school--which aimed to immerse its "associates" in the business culture--had struggled financially from its inception six years ago, largely because of the more than $9 million it expended on start up costs.

After the City Council came to the rescue, MBA executive director Jerry Neff expressed optimism about the future, telling worried parents, "We're here to stay." Some former students, staffers and others affiliated with the school were far less sanguine about the prospects. "I would not recommend this school to anyone," former MBA board chair Kathy Mirsch told City Pages at the time. "I think it's living on borrowed time."

As it turned out, Mirsch had the better crystal ball. Last night, the MBA board voted to shutter the operation at the end of the current school year. The main reason: the school could not consistently enroll enough students. Executive director Neff attributed the enrollment woes in part to media coverage of the MBA's financial difficulties.
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At a time when public schools all over the state have been under siege, the Minnesota Business Academy has enjoyed a valuable perk: vocal support from some of the state's most prominent corporations, business people, and politicians. Former Lt. Governor Joanne Benson served as the chief education officer for four years. Governor Tim Pawlenty doled out praise when the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce became the school's official sponsor last year. And a virtual who's-who of big corporations--Xcel Energy, General Mills, Ecolab--have lent their support, offering student internships and sending company officers to serve on its board…

Granted, the school has had its share of troubles, a fact that no one denies. Since it opened five years ago in the former Science Museum building in downtown St. Paul, the fledgling charter program has been saddled with debt. In part, this is because the MBA has struggled to attract students: After taking out loans to renovate the building, it needed to attract at least 440 pupils to cover its debts. But the school never got close. In 2003, nearly a quarter of the student body dropped out or was expelled. Throughout its history, the MBA has endured ceaseless staff turnover.

Yet two weeks ago, when the Minnesota Business Academy made its latest pitch for help, supporters painted a portrait of an institution on the verge of turning its troubles around. With staffers, students, and parents packing St. Paul City Hall, the City Council--by a 5-2 margin--agreed to accept the MBA's bailout proposal. That decision wiped the slate clean on $750,000 owed to the city (from a $1 million start-up loan) and it paved the way for the refinancing of about $10 million in other debts…

But in the view of some of the school's critics--including a number of former students, teachers, board members, and parents--the city's actions did little more than forestall the inevitable: the shuttering of a school that they say has floundered since the day it opened its doors. The place they describe is not the bold alternative and educational innovator touted by politicians and corporate PR officers.

Laura Mirsch, who graduated from the school with honors in 2004, says the MBA's problems were never strictly financial. She thinks arrogance and inexperience on the part of some of the MBA's founders played a large role, too. "Basically, it was run by a bunch of businesspeople who thought they knew more about education than public educators," Mirsch says.

When Mirsch arrived as a freshman, she recalls, the students were each shown to a personal cubicle with a computer and a phone. The idea--that kids would learn well in a businesslike setting--didn't mesh with the reality of lightly supervised 14-year-olds left to their own devices. "It was total bedlam," Mirsch remembers. "You were supposed to do your work in the cube, but a lot of the kids were making prank calls and screwing around all the time."

The cubicles didn't last long. In fact, change has been the one constant at MBA. Heavy student and staff turnover included three executive directors--i.e., principals--in five years. According to Neff, just three of the school's original twelve teachers remain on staff…

Kathy Mirsch--a former chair of the MBA board, a volunteer coach, and the mother of Laura--says she found herself frustrated during her years of involvement with the school. She blames many of the school's failings on a "totally unrealistic" business plan. "[The founders] had this vision of what they thought would happened," she says. "They thought a bunch of well-behaved, highly motivated kids were going to come to the school and work in cubicles and be self-motivated and self-directed. It was ridiculous."…

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