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Techworld put on probation

Funds diverted to Fla. charter school effort


Staff Writer

Techworld Public Charter School has been placed on probation by the D.C. Board of Education based on an independent auditor’s preliminary report that alleges the school’s funds were being improperly used to subsidize an effort to create another charter school in Florida.

The problem – involving school founder and executive director Daanen Strachan – was discovered by the school’s board of trustees and brought to the attention of the school board, which granted Techworld its charter in 1998.

The Rev. Robert G. Childs, school board president, said he believes the misappropriated funds have all been repaid but the school board is awaiting a final report from the auditing firm, Bert Smith and Co., to assess the full impact of the problem. Childs declined to specify how much money was involved.

Strachan and Leon Mercer, chairman of Techworld’s board of trustees, could not be reached for comment. Strachan is believed to be still involved with the school’s operations, said at-large school board member Tonya V. Kinlow, who until recently chaired the Board of Education’s Subcommittee on Charter Schools.

Childs and Kinlow both expressed grave disappointment over the business operations at Techworld but called the school’s academic programs "excellent." Located at Waterside Mall in Southwest Washington, Techworld currently is completing its second year of operation with 263 students enrolled in ninth and 10th grades.

Kinlow characterized the city’s fledgling charter schools as "small businesses that will have startup business problems that any small business will have if they don’t have the right people plugged in."

"We are hoping they (Techworld’s trustees) will take the necessary corrective action by putting in place the necessary checks and balances to ensure that their business operations are as good as their academic side," Kinlow said. The school’s probationary period, which began in mid-May, can extend for up to six months under the school board’s policy provisions for charter schools, but she expressed hope that the problems can be resolved quickly.

Techworld principal Christine Handy referred all questions regarding her school’s probationary status to the school’s board chairman but talked of needing "to work out the quirks."

"People have to give these (charter) schools time – you learn from last year," she said. "But in the business of educating kids, you don’t have a lot of room for making mistakes."

Business operations at the city’s public charter schools have come under increased scrutiny from oversight authorities. The schools, which were mandated in the District by Congress, are funded with tax dollars but operate independently from the D.C. Public Schools administration. Two separate boards, the elected D.C. Board of Education and the appointed D.C. Public Charter School Board that Congress created, have authority to issue charters to schools.

Francis S. Smith, executive director of the federally created financial control board, has held numerous recent meetings regarding the Public Charter School Board’s reported failure to require proper compliance with D.C. contracting procedures by the schools it chartered and oversees.

Childs said the elected school board, which is the chartering authority for most of the city’s public charter schools, has held a series of recent meetings with principals and trustees of charter schools "to get them all compliant and on course." Except for the diversion of funds at Techworld, Childs said "not many of the problems are serious."

"It’s time to strengthen the accountability side," he said, noting that many charter schools have placed more emphasis on their academic programs than on their financial operations.

"When they got their charters, we recommended that they all get business managers…and I think some of them are just realizing how important that is," Childs said.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator