The school operated under charter president Daniel Hughes and Bradley Academy of Excellence, Inc.
Discovery Creemos Academy was a K-8 school that served several hundred students — an exact enrollment count is unclear, but the school had an enrollment cap of 530. The school was wracked by financial and administrative problems. On January 30, the school's website was replaced by a letter to families informing them that the academy was suspending classes indefinitely, citing "troubled" operations, finances, and "an endless barrage of adversities."
“The school has exhausted all of its operational and financial resources in order to survive over the last couple of years and, tragically, we simply cannot keep up,” the letter from school leadership stated, while also mentioning recent “hateful online threats” directed toward staff members.
Now, parents, education advocates, and attorneys for the former teachers are wondering why the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools couldn’t effectively address mismanagement at the school before it was too late.
James Green, an attorney for around 30 teachers that were previously employed by the school, told the board on Monday that his clients are hard-pressed to find a job. They shouldn't be held responsible for systemic failures that let the school's mismanagement go unpunished, he said.
“The teachers want to know, and probably every other taxpayer deserves to know, where are the safeguards that prevent this type of thing from happening?” Green said. “Where are the regulations, the state agencies, the boards? Who prevents this stuff from happening?”
Everyone who failed to provide oversight, Green added, deserves "to be in the unemployment line far more than these teachers do."
Charter Board President Kathy Senseman referred vaguely to what the board knew and when they knew it during the meeting.
While saying that they couldn’t comment publicly on investigations, Senseman asked board staff if it was fair to say “that this was not a new matter to us, but that we had initiated some investigations and requests for audits from other agencies, well over a year ago, to start creating the findings to close the school?” The board's executive director, Ashley Berg, agreed.
According to the report filed by the charter board’s staff, a 2016 audit of the charter school identified several problems. The board was not sufficiently independent, according to the audit. Moreover, in Spring 2016, the charter “engaged several companies owned by the Director and Charter Representative to provide various services,” while not documenting the expenses properly in school accounting records.
As a result, the board asked the school to submit a corrective action plan on March 8, 2017, to address the issues. Yet in June, the board renewed the school's license for 20 more years. While reviewing the school for renewal, the board found the school falling "far below" academic performance standards for 2014, earning a "D" rating, and also had just 13 percent of students pass ELA and 7 percent pass math, based on 2016 AZMerit data.
Financial issues also plagued the school, as documented by the Arizona Republic, which noted that a January 2017 audit found the school had negative $3.34 million in net assets as of June 2016.
The corrective action plan hadn’t been completed when the school closed, according to the board staff. Discovery Creemos Academy closed after the 100th day of school, ensuring that the charter school would receive funds allocated to it by the state. Hughes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Senseman and others apologized to the school's former teachers, several of whom were present at the meeting. The vote to revoke the charter was unanimous.
Board member James Swanson said that the school’s sudden closure and its consequences for students concern him. “I think it is an absolute necessity that we look at all of the accountability across the system,” he said. “And make sure that we are protecting the children of Arizona and making sure they have a quality place to go and get an education.”
Several neighboring district schools in Avondale have taken in students who were locked out of Discovery Creemos Academy. Board staff have worked to help families make the sudden move to a new school, according to Charter Board Vice President Rachel Yanof.
“Our hearts go out to you; this certainly wasn’t something that you asked for,” Yanof said. “And I just want to commend the board staff who’s taken it upon themselves — though it’s not actually in their job — but to help ensure that they’re trying to make this as easy a transition as possible.”