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Overcrowding, budget woes threaten La Mesa charter school

A La Mesa charter school is at risk of closing due to a plethora of problems, including violations of federal and state laws, which staff blame on past mismanagement.

At a special meeting Tuesday, the La Mesa-Spring Valley School Board voted unanimously to issue a notice of violation to Sparrow Academy due to concerns about its finances, facilities, special education compliance and more – the first step toward possibly revoking the school’s charter and forcing its closure.

The school has one month to prove that it has correctly addressed all identified issues. Next, the district will decide whether to continue revoking Sparrow’s charter.

But whatever its decision, the district doubts the school will even be able to survive financially.

Because its current campus lacks accessible facilities, the school is moving to a smaller space where it would be forced to cut its enrollment by more than half — which would reduce revenue and force budget cuts. The school already has a significant budget deficit, but it has yet to take steps to reduce expenses, as its recent budget reports and school board meeting minutes show.

“The district has serious concerns about the viability of Sparrow Academy operating under these significantly different conditions,” La Mesa-Spring Valley Superintendent David Feliciano wrote in a letter to Sparrow Academy last week.

Management and staff at the charter school blamed their problems on years of mismanagement by previous leaders and said they had nothing to do with it.

“When I read the recommendation for notice of violation, I was appalled…at the level of mismanagement that had occurred before my tenure,” said Michelle D’Augusta, now executive director of Sparrow in December, during a district board meeting Tuesday.

D’Augusta did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite all of the school’s problems, some teachers and parents pleaded Tuesday with La Mesa-Spring Valley to keep their school open.

They said the school was high-performing and D’Augusta was working to resolve its problems. They said it is one of the only public schools in the county to offer a Waldorf education, a holistic educational philosophy that incorporates the arts.

“It seems cruel to pull the rug out from under hundreds of students because of decisions made by a few adults over the past few years, especially considering the immense work Ms. D’Augusta has done to make the necessary changes so that Sparrow can continue,” teacher Rebecca Vogelezang said during the meeting.

But despite D’Augusta’s plans and promises, La Mesa-Spring Valley officials said the school has still failed to come up with a concrete plan that would solve all of its problems. Deeper problems have emerged in recent months, leading the district to doubt whether management will improve, Feliciano said in his letter.

“While the district appreciates Sparrow Academy’s recent communication dated March 4…it makes promises of future improvements and only expresses ‘potential’ ideas rather than proposing viable plans that have been implemented or are likely to be implemented by the Sparrow Academy,” he wrote.

A “potentially enormous liability”

Sparrow Academy says it serves about 340 students in grades K-8, according to a recent budget report.

Many of Sparrow’s problems stem from the fact that he opened a campus on Campo Road without the required permits or permission from the district. After the district raised concerns in 2021, Sparrow closed that location and moved its middle school students to its other campus, a facility on Spring Gardens Road.

But this establishment does not have enough space for all its students. For years, Sparrow Academy has had several makeshift classrooms in the school gymnasium, with temporary partitions serving as classroom walls. A classroom was kept on the gymnasium stage, which created handicap access issues because it was only accessible by stairs, the district noted.

Despite overcrowding, the school continued to enroll students beyond its capacity, the district said.

The campus is also not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act in several other areas. Several classrooms lack wheelchair access, some toilets are substandard and it lacks an accessible path to a playground, a consultancy found.

Sparrow also violated special education laws, the district says.

The school discovered in December that one of its two special education teachers did not have a special education credential the entire time she worked there, violating federal and state laws and facing “potential liability huge,” the district said.

The school fired the teacher, but since then has lacked enough special education staff to meet state workload requirements, the district said. And the special education services, assessments, and meetings provided by the improperly credentialed teacher are now deemed inappropriate, invalid, and noncompliant, respectively.

Sparrow met with families whose students attended that teacher and offered them makeup services, D’Augusta told the district.

The district said it also expressed concerns throughout 2022 and 2023 about whether Sparrow was meeting special education deadlines and requirements, and whether it had sufficient policies in place to support students before directing them to special education.

Sparrow said he hired outside help to verify students’ special education plans for compliance.

An “aggressive hypothesis”

Sparrow Academy says it cannot make the changes necessary to make its campus ADA compliant, due to restrictions imposed by its landlord, and is therefore considering moving to St. Luke’s Lutheran. But that church is only allowed to accommodate 150 students, so Sparrow will have to cut its enrollment by more than half.

This would significantly reduce its public funding and worsen its existing budget problems. The school is projecting a deficit of $630,000, or about 9 percent of its budget, for this current school year, according to a board presentation in February — and it already owes La Mesa-Spring Valley more than 500 $000 for special education fees that she has not paid for more than two years. school years, depending on the district.

Additionally, Sparrow relies on charter school grants, but it will not yet qualify for them because it is not in compliance with its charter and is not in good standing with La Mesa-Spring Valley.

The school must implement budget cuts to accommodate declining enrollment, according to D’Augusta. But the school has not yet approved a plan or issued a layoff notice.

In fact, the school had planned its budget for the next school year as if it would enroll even more students than this year. A budget consultant for Sparrow’s back-office vendor, Charter School Management Corporation, acknowledged in an email that they made an “aggressive assumption” about the school’s enrollment for next year “more to make work the (budget).”

D’Augusta told the district this month that the company’s enrollment projections for Sparrow did not match actual enrollments. The school is considering switching to another back-office provider, she said.

The school plans to apply for a $500,000 line of credit — according to the district, an unusually high figure for a school of its size. The district also doubts the school will be able to repay such a large debt, given that it plans to reduce enrollment.

It is not at all clear that Sparrow Academy will be allowed to move to St. Luke’s.

A location change will require district approval to revise Sparrow’s charter — but because the school lacks a solid restructuring plan, the district is unlikely to grant it, officials wrote.

Sparrow Academy would apply for a revised facility permit that would increase enrollment and student capacity, D’Augusta told the district.

“I just couldn’t.”

Sparrow has had a revolving door of executive directors in recent years. Until summer 2022, Sparrow Academy was led by founder Alexis Lazzaretti.

Lazzaretti left in June 2022, a year and a half after the district said she began sharing concerns about how her school was operating. Later that year, she began working for Charter School Management Corporation, Sparrow’s back-office provider.

Lazzaretti declined to comment for this story.

After Lazzaretti left Sparrow, longtime educator Consuelo Manríquez took over as executive director. But she left her position after barely a year.

“My first month, I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ It was not a good learning environment,” said Manríquez, now a district school principal in Imperial County. “I just couldn’t. I left. There are too many things I can’t change.

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