State withholds Golden Valley charter school's funds

  • Article by: AIMÉE BLANCHETTE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 27, 2008 - 10:32 PM

A Golden Valley charter school has lost more than $60,000 in state money because it continued to employ unlicensed teachers.

The Minnesota Department of Education has withheld state funds from a charter school for employing unlicensed teachers -- a decision that has cost LoveWorks Academy in Golden Valley more than $60,000.

The loss of the state funding was the culmination of a nearly four-month investigation of teacher licensure at the school. In a letter dated Nov. 10, Education Commissioner Chas Anderson told the school that the department had decided to withhold $62,227.78 because the academy "has failed to correct these ongoing violations in spite of several notices and extended deadlines."

A LoveWorks administrator said in an interview that the school has "rectified the issues, is going forth strong" and plans to dispute the decision in a Department of Education hearing.

The department began to work with the K-8 charter school during the summer, after KSTP-TV, Channel 5, investigated claims that unlicensed teachers were working in the school. At the time, the state found that 73 percent -- 27 of the school's 37 staff members -- were teaching without licenses.

The state threatened to withhold funds unless the school made sure that all its teachers were licensed by Oct. 1 -- a deadline that was extended to Oct. 18.

By Oct. 6, LoveWorks had attained compliance for all of its teachers, but the Education Department was concerned that some instructional aides who lacked licenses were directly instructing students, a violation of state law.

During an unscheduled visit to the school last month for a final review, Education Department officials said they found two unlicensed instructional aides in separate classrooms providing direct instruction to students.

LoveWorks Academy's interim director, April Harrison, argues that there are gray areas concerning the state's definition of an instructional aide.

"If an instructional aide should be sitting in a corner while the teacher handles 18 kids in a classroom, well, I have a problem with that," Harrison said.

Former director dismissed

Harrison began serving as interim director after its school board terminated Patrice Dorrall, founder and director of the four-year-old visual- and performing-arts charter school.

Dorrall has been at the center of the school's controversy since August, when a Golden Valley police investigation found that Dorrall had punished a 9-year-old using a belt, according to a complaint filed in Hennepin County District Court.

Police charged Dorrall with misdemeanor assault, but her case has yet to go to trial. Dorrall could not be reached for comment for this report.

When asked why Dorrall was terminated, Harrison said, "The board felt there was some decisions that were made that probably weren't in the best interest of the school." Harrison would not cite specific decisions, but said Dorrall never intended "to be unlawful."

"More than anything, it was a lack of knowledge," she said.

Last week, a former Loveworks teacher, Jill Love, filed suit against the school, claiming that she was wrongfully fired after she filed two formal complaints against Dorrall when she and another teacher learned that Dorrall had hit a student in a bathroom with a belt. Love is seeking damages.

Program suffered in numbers

Since Dorrall's termination at the end of August, Harrison said, the school has been working to make improvements, including ensuring the licensing of all teachers, the appointment of a new board and the creation of a parent-teacher organization. Minneapolis nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities sponsors the school.

John Cairns, an attorney for LoveWorks Academy, said in an interview that, while "there are plenty of signs that the prior administration did a lot of things wrong ... the big picture is that the [Education] Department accomplished what it wanted. The penalty serves no purpose except to penalize the school going forward and to disadvantage the children. It's removing resources from a school that's doing the right thing."

LoveWorks Academy has lost about 100 students since the teacher licensing issues surfaced in August. There are currently about 270 students attending the school.

But many parents are remaining faithful to the school and said their children receive education superior to a traditional public school.

"Licenses or not, you can't go wrong," said Kate Chock, the mother of a first-grader at LoveWorks.

Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715

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