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Troubled charter school spent nearly all its $175K state funding on leadership salaries

Delaware STEM Academy's spending of a state grant shines a light on how taxpayers are funding a charter that may not even open.

Delaware STEM Academy Executive Director Brett Taylor shows off a hypothetical classroom. (Photo by Ben Porten)
Correction: Delaware STEM Academy board member Ted Williams was not a founding board member of Delaware Met, as was previously reported in this story. Williams said this was a mistake in his resume. (6/17/16, 1:36 p.m.)
Budget documents submitted last Friday to the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) show that Delaware STEM Academy (DSA), a New Castle charter school in danger of losing its charter before it even opens, allocated nearly all its state funding to supporting its principal and executive director.

In the last year, DSA spent just over $171,000 of a $175,000 state grant on salaries and additional employee costs for executive director Brett Taylor and principal Laura Jennice, according to budget documents and confirmed by Taylor.
“These uses were applied for and approved by the Department of Education,” Taylor wrote in an email. Taylor, a former Delaware Department of Transportation staffer, added that going forward, his salary would be paid by donations to DSA, which is incorporated as a nonprofit.
The $175,000 grant came from DDOE’s Performance Fund, which started in 2013 to help charters launch or expand and whose future has been called into question in the state’s recent budget deliberations.
DSA’s spending raises questions about how the state is funding charter schools, especially those that are in danger of being shuttered.
“It is not unusual for a school to use its performance fund allocation for salaries as it is preparing to open,” said DDOE’s Public Information Officer Alison May.
That doesn’t entirely seem to be the case, according to a review of the applications of nine other charter schools that applied for the 2015 Performance Fund. Only two other schools included leadership salaries in their applications: Mapleton Charter School, which received 20 percent of the total funding it requested, and Great Oaks Charter School Wilmington, which received nothing from the fund. (Budget documents for how Mapleton Charter School eventually used its state grant were not available.)
One Delaware politician called DSA’s spending of the state grant “an abuse” of the Performance Fund.
“[This spending] does not surprise me,” said state Rep. John Kowalko (D-Newark), a frequent critic of charter schools. “The lack of any kind of auditing or any kind of legitimate kind of accountability in charter schools has become a calling card of this industry. I find it offensive that taxpayers’ money is being spent [on this].”
Kowalko said he was considering asking the Attorney General to investigate DSA.
Another troubled charter school, Wilmington’s Delaware Met, also received a $175,000 Performance Fund grant in 2015. The school said it would use the grant to hire employees to run an internship program and to purchase equipment for an “inspiration hub,” among other things. But just one semester after Met opened, the state revoked its charter due to financial troubles, safety concerns and legal compliance issues.
(On the resume that DSA Board President Ted Williams submitted to DDOE as part of the DSA’s charter application, it says that Williams was a founding member of Met. Williams later told us that this was a typo.)
The Performance Fund may not survive this budget season, though.
Earlier this month, the state’s Joint Finance Committee removed the Performance Fund from the original state budget. May said that it remains to be seen whether the Performance Fund will be available for the 2016-17 school year. The state’s final budget won’t be passed until June 30.
As for DSA, today is a big day. Secretary of Education Steven Godowsky will announce his final decision regarding the revocation of DSA’s charter. Despite its tenuous future, up until last weekend, the school was still hosting open houses to try to enroll new students. DSA has enrolled 123 students so far, according to the documents the school provided to DDOE. We’ll keep you posted.

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