Mo. Board Votes to Close Imagine Charter Schools in St. Louis

More than 3,500 St. Louis students may have to look for a new school next year. The Missouri Board of Education voted Tuesday to close six charter schools operated by Imagine Schools Inc., a for-profit charter management organization (CMO) based in Arlington, Va., the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

Imagine students make up one-third of the charter school students in St. Louis and the company is the largest CMO in the country, the Post-Dispatch reports. But its St. Louis schools have performed below grade-level and worse than traditional public schools, and faced allegations of financial improprieties in Missouri and other states. In November, the Post-Dispatch reported that Imagine was profiting from complex real estate deals, but racking up debt and paying a far greater percentage of the schools’ budget on rent—at the expense of instruction—than other charter schools.

(The funding breakdown aligns with a report we highlighted last week showing that, despite assumptions charter schools spend more money on instruction than administration, for-profit operators in Michigan spend more on administrative costs.)

The Imagine schools in St. Louis were sponsored by Missouri Baptist University, which decided in December to close two schools and put four others on probation; under pressure from the state board of education, the university handed over sponsorship of all schools, which were promptly slated for closure, the Post-Dispatch reports.

In a statement, Jason Bryant, executive vice president of Imagine Schools, said the board’s decision was abrupt and the schools’ performance is improving. I’ve reached out to Imagine for details on future steps it may take, but have not heard back yet.

As for the 3,500 students, the board and St. Louis schools are considering options. Officials could find spaces in traditional public schools or other charters for the students, or enlist a new operator for the schools.

(Update April 20: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Imagine schools closure may be the largest local charter closure in the country.)

The Imagine saga is perhaps the largest in a string of recent struggles for CMOs. The following revelations have occurred across the country in April alone. (Keep in mind: charter schools are public schools funded with taxpayer dollars that private nonprofit or for-profit groups are often contracted to run.)

  • The former head of New Media Technology Charter School, in Philadelphia, pleaded guilty to stealing public funds slated for the school and using the money to finance business and real estate deals.
  • American Indian Public Charter School II, in Oakland, narrowly escaped a school board vote to close the school, but still faces a state audit of its finances. Preliminary results of the audit allege the school’s founder, Ben Chavis, used school money to pay for questionable services provided by his own companies. The school, one of the highest-performing charters in California, denies the allegations.
  • Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the founder of the Believe High School Network, which operated three charter schools in Brooklyn, was indicted on 11 felony counts for allegedly using a school credit card to pay for vacations, not paying taxes on his six-figure salary, and providing a fake tax return to auditors. Two of the schools are slated for closure.
  • A Dayton Daily News report found the state used $4.8 million in stimulus funds for charter schools that have since closed. Richard Allen Academy, the operator of four charter schools in the area, received $1.9 million in stimulus funds as an audit found examples of improper spending and conflicts of interest, leading to nearly $1 million in findings for recovery, the Daily News reported. The school said it provided documentation that contradicts those claims.

Critics of charter schools tend to cite the aforementioned examples as reasons to prohibit, or at least heavily monitor new charters. Proponents point out just as many examples of charter schools that improve student performance without controversy.

At any rate, many states, including Missouri, are considering legislation to expand and/or regulate charter schools. Which examples of charter schools those lawmakers choose to put forward could affect future policy.

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