Troubled Charter School Lays Off Teachers After It's Put on Probation

The troubled Kingsbridge Innovative Design Charter School in the Bronx laid off five teachers last week and some administrators after being put on probation by the New York State Board of Regents.

The new charter school opened 10 days later than scheduled in September, and has struggled ever since, according to the Regents.

In placing the school on probation in March, the state's education department cited "ongoing financial problems" including allegations that the school wasn't able to make payroll and never ran the extended school day until 5 p.m. as promised. It called the school's situation "fiscally unsound" and ordered the school to make changes or risk having its charter revoked in May.

Sources connected to the school tell WNYC that teachers' checks bounced after Christmas, and 401K contributions weren't always made. The school is temporarily located in a former medical office on West 231st Street that was renovated for the school because the original location wasn't ready on time.

Parents and teachers were patient about the delayed opening but sources say the school's business side wasn't run well. The school's principal was fired in January, and it has not had a full-time educational leader ever since. Three board members have left since the start of the school year too.

The charter has 150 students in kindergarten and first grade. It's founder and executive director, Julio Cotto, wouldn't speak with WNYC at length, but he referred to other comments he gave the Wall Street Journal and the Riverdale Press in which he said the school's fiscal challenges weren't "unusual," and that he's confident about the remaining team of teachers who will stay on until the end of the school year.

The school laid off five of its 15 teachers last week. Sources say another teacher and a guidance counselor were let go earlier. There are allegations that the recent layoffs were retaliatory. Teachers at Kingsbridge Innovative Design had been trying to unionize because of the school's financial problems (charters typically don't have unionized teachers). Sources say the teachers who were laid off were the most vocal ones about unionizing.

Cotto denied the allegation when he spoke with the Journal. He said the teachers, three operational staffers and an administrator were all let go for budget reasons.

When WNYC called the school Monday, Cotto spoke very briefly about how the charter was trying to work through its financial problems.

He then handed the phone to parent volunteer Jessica Martinez, whose son attends kindergarten at the school. Martinez said the school's leadership had been upfront about recent financial problems in emails to parents and she was satisfied with her son's education and the small class size of 22 students. She hopes he can continue attending this fall.

Meanwhile, the Regents has ordered the school to submit evidence that it's making all payroll-related expenses and details about its financing by April 29. The charter also has to come up with a remedial plan. If the Regents isn't satisfied they could vote to close it this spring.