Sussex County Delaware
GCS Was Doomed
from the Start
Sussex Beat, March 7, 2002

NOTE: Sussex Beat is a log of news briefs and commentary by Eric Magill, publisher of Sussex County Online, with contributions from Sussex County Online users.


Eric Magill, Sussex County Online

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It has been virtually impossible to find the truth of what has happened at the Georgetown Charter School with all of the rhetoric and hype flying around the financially distressed institution for the past two weeks.

Between rumors that the Delaware Department of Education was going to close the school on March 8, and the arrogance of GCS parents and officials claiming that their children are way ahead of other public school students in the county, any accountability for what happened at the GCS has been lost in the shuffle.

On one hand, the Delaware Department of Education says the school has put itself in financial peril with unwise financial practices, while on the other hand, school officials and parents blame the DOE for engaging in a witch hunt to close the school down.

Judging by their reactions after a closed door (?!) meeting on Wednesday, March 6, 2002, it doesn't appear that state politicians were able to get any better handle on what has happened here, either.

Trying to sift through all of the shouting, what has become apparent is this:

  • Financially, the Georgetown Charter School was simply not ready to open its doors last September;
  • GCS officials don't have the expertise to manage the $3.7 million budget that they, themselves, proposed to the DOE;
  • The state should have simply put the hammer down last summer and prevented the school from opening until it was ready;
  • If there truly was a witch hunt at the DOE, it seems many other charter schools would be under "formal review" like the GCS;
  • The parents honestly believe the GCS is the best school for their kids, which is half the battle for any successful school.

The sad part of GCS' problems is that other charter schools have succeeded in this state where the GCS has failed.

When you compare the GCS to the Sussex Academy of Arts & Sciences, for instance, it seems obvious that the GCS was doomed from the start.

The Sussex Academy started with 200 students in three grades housed in beautiful permanent facilities, while the GCS started with 600 students in seven grades housed in modular facilities while it tried to generate the capital to build a permanent building.

In fact, in a public information meeting at Delaware Technical & Community College on Thursday, March 7, the DOE said that the GCS was out of money because it had spent $1.6 million earmarked for operating expenses on land for its permanent facilities.

It's not hard to figure out why, then, that the Sussex Academy's books are balanced, whereas the GCS is running a $1.5 million shortfall in its first year.

About all the two schools appear to have in common is a quality educational experience for the students.

The problems at GCS were apparent back in September 2001, when the state Board of Education approved a one-year moratorium on applications for new charter schools at the request of Secretary of Education Valerie Woodruff, who cited "recent challenges in opening new schools".

Even before then, the GCS was under formal review by the DOE until that status was lifted as part of a charter modification in August 2001. With those warning signs, the state should never have allowed the GCS to open its doors, no matter how much the parents of prospective students protested.

Judging by the GCS' web site, the school wasn't even open four months before rumors of its demise began swirling.

In December, Principal Becky King urged parents and contributors to contact the DOE to support the school's request to remain in modular buildings one more year than planned.

"This vote will only impact on our facilities for next school year," King wrote. "A negative vote would not cause our doors to close in January."

The bottom line is this:

GCS board members and administrators need to stop hiding behind their students and parents and accept responsibility for their failings. However well-intentioned they have been, however well-educated the students may be, the fact is Charter Schools are operated as businesses and businesses close when they run out of money.

I've been in that position myself in the past. When your business, an enterprise you've put your heart and soul into, begins to fail, you start rationalizing and blaming outside sources for your problems. It's such a personal thing, it's impossible to admit your failings until it's too late.

In the end, you simply have to take your licks and take the painful lessons learned on to your next venture.

As the parent of a first grader at Lord Baltimore Elementary School in Ocean View, which was honored as a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education last year despite working out of an antiquated building, I know how important parental involvement is in the success of a school.

With that understanding, and seeing how passionate the GCS parents and students are about their school, I hope something can be done to save it. If not, I hope those parents and students will remember what made GCS so special to them and take that same passion with them to whatever public school they attend.

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