Editorial: Indian school closure holds lessons

  • Updated: August 13, 2008 - 6:18 PM

Better oversight needed for some charter schools.

Add another charter school to the casualty list. On Tuesday, the Minneapolis school board voted to end its sponsorship of Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth, which effectively closes the K-12 program for Native American kids.

Though the move is disappointing for 200 students and families who are suddenly without a school, board members made the right decision. Given the program's long history of financial and management troubles, the district probably should have taken action sooner.

The closure is the most recent example of a problem identified by the legislative auditor in a report issued last month. The study found that while many of the state's 144 charter programs are in good financial shape and coming along academically, a number need work on governance and accountability. Auditors called the monitoring provided by sponsors and the state "unclear and often quite complicated.'' Heart of the Earth's failure demonstrates why that oversight is so important.

Started back in the 1970s, the school was originally an alternative Minneapolis public school program. It was created to provide culturally sensitive schooling for Native American students in an effort to help them achieve more academic success.

The program became a charter school in 1999, with the Minneapolis public schools serving as its sponsor. Last year, district officials learned that the school was behind on pension fund and vendor payments and that an audit had not been completed. Now the school's executive director for the past five years, Joel Pourier, is under investigation by the Hennepin County Sherriff's Office because of allegations that he embezzled school funds. Pourier's attorney says he's not guilty.

But even before the current problems and well before Pourier's tenure, Heart of the Earth had experienced financial and management troubles. In 2003, a study done by then state Rep. Matt Entenza concluded that several charters, including Heart of the Earth, had management or financial problems serious enough to merit further scrutiny by their sponsors. Charter schools receive public funds but operate independent of the public school system.

Sadly, those hurt most by the school's closing are its students, who share none of the blame for the financial troubles. With that in mind, closing the school should not mean the district will abandon the children or the concept of a culturally sensitive focus. Minneapolis school officials are wisely meeting with displaced students, their families and the Metropolitan Urban Indian directors group for guidance on placing students at other schools -- including several district programs that also have a Native American focus.

Despite the management problems, staff and students at the school were beginning to make modest progress in academic achievement. Educationally, the program was moving in the right direction, and discussions will continue about ways to bring the school back to life, perhaps with another sponsor or as a contract or alternative district program.

In the meantime, the state and lawmakers clearly have more work to do to strengthen charter school accountability.

  • THE RIGHT CHOICE

    "It was a tough, tough decision, but it was the right one. And I'm proud that we reached consensus in the Native community about closing the school. Now we're going to step back for a year and study options. And we'll work to make sure students are placed in programs with the best fit for them -- be they public, private or charters.''

    Peggy Flanagan,

    Minneapolis school board member.

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