Saturday, June 15, 2002

Sabis school decision could come soon

Judge's decision determines if charter school can stay open

By Jennifer Mrozowski,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As the last day of school before summer break drew to a close Friday, parents and 650 students of a 2-year-old Mount Auburn charter school remained unsure about the future.

        Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Norbert Nadel said he needed more time to sort out complicated legal details surrounding Sabis International School. He's expected to rule next week on whether to grant an order that could keep the school running.

        The Mount Auburn charter school's board and the for-profit management company hired to run it have been embroiled in lawsuits for three months.

        It could be the first charter school in Cincinnati to close for good since Ohio's charter school law passed five years ago.

        “It's kind of bothersome,” said parent Andre Monroe of Avondale, who has three children attending Sabis. “Everything's in limbo and if we're going to find an educational system comparable to Sabis, time is of the essence.”

        Sabis International — in the former Taft Elementary — has attracted 450 families, many of them African-American, who were dissatisfied with their children's education in other schools. Sabis is one of 92 charter schools in Ohio.

        Like traditional public schools, charter schools don't charge tuition and are financed with public money. They are run by parents, community leaders or sometimes for-profit management companies and have an appointed board.

        More than 4,000 parents have flocked to the 18 charter schools in Greater Cincinnati since the first two opened in 1998.

        Parents say they were drawn to Sabis' college-preparatory focus and to the renovated building and surrounding greenspace, which was purchased by the management company.

        The school's board hired the management company Cincinnati Education Management LLC to run the school. CEM is an affiliate of Minnesota-based Sabis Educational Systems Inc, a for-profit education management company.

        Parents say they feel the school offers their kids a private-school education for free.

        “I think it's a bad decision to close it,” said parent Nashon Thomas of Avondale. Three of his children attend Sabis. “My sons are really learning here.”

        The controversy erupted in November when the school's board terminated its contract with Sabis Educational Systems.

        The board sued to close the school in March, saying the management company was too concerned with turning a profit and wouldn't provide it with financial documents. The board said the company was charging the nonprofit school excessive rent at $98,000 a month.

        Other lawsuits have been filed, including one last month by the management company and Sabis parents charging the board with breaking the contract. A group of parents wants the board to resign.

        “It's a tragedy (the board) would take something that's working for the community,” said school Director Derrick Shelton.

        The management company has helped launch a fight to keep the school running under its operation. It says the board illegally terminated the contract by acting in a private meeting.

        Students have posted “Save Our School” signs throughout the building.

        “It's a good school and it gives you a good education,” said 13-year-old Andrea Cottingham, a seventh-grader.

        The management company is asking the judge to overturn the board's November decision to terminate its contract.

        That would allow the school to stay in business with the Sabis program for another year.

        Meanwhile, the board is working to implement a new learning program used by the University School of Florida State University, hire new staff and secure a location.

        “We are doing our best to provide a good educational environment,” said Charles Wallner, the board's spokesman. “The board does not question the intent of the parents, but it's important not only that children are taught well but they are taught in an ethical environment.”

        As they await the judge's decision, parents say they're frustrated their school choice is in jeopardy. Some fear their kids will be dumped back into the public school system they shunned.

        “Where do we put our kids after being at this school two years?” Mr. Thomas said. “I would like them to return, but it's still up in the air.”


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