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Official raises question about principal’s firing

A state official suspects a charter school principal might have been fired for asking too many questions about school finances, potentially jeopardizing the school’s status as a "cash cow" for its private management company, Imagine Schools of Arlington, Va.

The 100 Academy of Excellence, 2341 Comstock Drive, receives about $3 million in state funding each year but about half of its revenues go to Imagine Schools, including a $1.4 million leasing fee for its building, which is only at 60 percent of its occupancy, said Gary Horton, an account administrator for the Nevada Department of Education.

The K-7 school has 600 students, but the 45,000-square-foot structure could serve as many as 1,000 students, Horton said.

Horton said the building lease has "an escalation clause," meaning the cost of rent goes up each year.

Charter schools are a hybrid of public and private schools. They receive the same public funding based on enrollment as public schools and offer free tuition, but they are managed by private organizations to increase innovation and alternatives to regular public schools.

The school is in its third year, but in the past it has had to ask Imagine for debt forgiveness because it could not pay its rent.

Imagine Schools said that last year was the last time they would forgive rent owed by the academy, said Horton in an e-mail to education officials.

The school is in danger of running a deficit this year, according to information the former principal, Hugh Wallace, gave Horton. The school owes the Clark County School District about $36,000 for its sponsorship fee. The school has promised to pay half the fee this month and the remainder in February, officials said.

In an e-mail sent to state education officials, Horton said he believes Wallace, the former principal who was asking questions about finances, might have been fired because "Imagine has a cash cow to protect and could not broach dissent."

The school also failed to make academic progress last year, according to the standards of No Child Left Behind, and was put on the state’s "Watch List."

Wallace, the former principal, told Horton that the school’s more experienced teachers were being let go and class sizes were rising to one teacher per 35 students. Classrooms in the school district are funded at 27 students per teacher in fourth and fifth grades, and 35 students in sixth through 12th grades.

Wallace, the fired principal, could not be reached for comment this week.

The national office of Imagine Schools did not respond to repeated phone calls seeking comment Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Tanya Flanagan, a member of the school’s board of directors, said it was Imagine’s decision to fire Wallace. She said the board will discuss the situation with Imagine for the first time this weekend.

While many charter schools are struggling because of the hard times, Flanagan said the 100 Academy of Excellence was not in danger of closing this year.

Locally, the school is known for its affiliation with 100 Black Men, a nonprofit organization that does community service for the charter school. The school’s enrollment is about 90 percent black.

But the school is actually part of a national network of charter schools run by Imagine Schools. Schoolhouse Finance, a limited liability corporation and subsidiary of Imagine, provides financing for school buildings.

According to property assessor records, the 100 Academy of Excellence school building is owned by the Jerit CS Fund, a property management firm affiliated with Schoolhouse Finance. Flanagan, a member of the board of directors, said the school is under contract with Imagine to use the facility built three years ago.

Lorraine Alderman, the school district administrator responsible for monitoring charter schools, said she was waiting until February to do a regular audit review of all charter schools under the district’s sponsorship. She also wanted to give charter schools some leeway because she knew they had to turn in a financial report to the state Department of Education on Friday.

Alderman said she has an appointment to speak with interim Principal Vickie Frazier-Williams about the school on Monday.

Walt Rulffes, the district superintendent, acknowledged that the 100 Academy of Excellence "provides a service to its community" and said the district would terminate its sponsorship only as a "last resort."

In Friday morning street interviews, parents said they were happy with the school.

"The teachers here love the kids," said Denise Dixon, the mother of a kindergartner and second-grader. "I’m not at all concerned about their education. All schools go through some turnover in administration."

Floyd Easley, a father, said his knowledge of the situation was limited. "We’re new here to Las Vegas," he said. "We don’t know a lot about what’s happening behind the scenes. We hope they don’t lose focus on the kids."

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal.com or 702-799-2922.

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