Context Middle School


“Financial woes, doomed charter school.” The Press-Enterprise (CA), 3/11/2012
Temecula’s Context Middle School was billed as a small learning environment where teachers would emphasize how lessons related to the real world.

When it opened in August, the charter school set out to focus on technology and the arts, with dozens of laptops for students and music lessons during and after school.

Less than six months and more than $800,000 in taxpayer dollars later, Context was gone.

It joins a list of 26 other Inland charter schools that have closed or had their charters revoked in the past 20 years. Charter schools, created to foster innovation and freed from some state rules, sometimes struggle with the administrative tasks and finances needed to run a campus, experts say...

Context was plagued by financial problems, mismanagement and infighting that began almost as soon as its doors opened, according to correspondence and financial documents obtained by The Press-Enterprise under the California Public Records Act.

Among the school’s problems:

Context was in the red as early as September, and school officials failed to address financial concerns raised by the Temecula Valley Unified School District. The school’s board missed a deadline to file a required financial report.

Context founder Michele Smith, a parent who worked in consulting but had no education background, was dismissed from the school’s board of directors in October because of concerns over her handling of school finances.

Rita Blickenstaff, Joanne Gilbreath and Robert Heveron, who made up the Context board when it closed, did not respond to numerous phone and email requests for comment.

In a brief interview in early February, Smith said she spent thousands of dollars of her own money to open Context and wasn’t responsible for its financial problems. Smith blamed problems on other board members and the company Context hired to help with business operations.

Sandro Lanni, president of the firm, Charter School Management Corp., did not respond to a phone message seeking comment. In a Feb. 2 email to Temecula Valley officials, he blamed the Context board, saying the firm was “stunned at the continuous awful governance” by the board.

Smith said the Context board would not address problems, and “anything that would allow the process to cure itself they failed to do.” She did not respond to recent messages seeking further comment.

Board minutes and correspondence between Context and the Temecula school district indicate others believe Smith was to blame for the financial problems...

As early as September, the school was having problems balancing its books, district correspondence indicated. By February, Context had less than $10,000 in the bank, documents show...

As board infighting and financial issues continued, parents tried to work with the school board to address the problems but were rebuffed, said Osmana Nagata, who was president of Context’s parent council.

“We were told just shut up and fundraise,” she said last month...

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