With Controversial Leader Gone, Charter Makes Bid to Stay Alive

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The lawyer for a troubled Brooklyn charter school that the city’s Department of Education has flagged for closing made a forceful case at a hearing on Tuesday for keeping the school open.

The city announced in January that it planned to close the school, Williamsburg Charter High School. It had been placed on probation in September after an investigation by Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, raised questions about its management and finances.

The decision to revoke the school’s charter came less than a week after Williamburg Charter’s board of trustees voted to rehire the school’s controversial founder, Eddie Calderon-Melendez.

In a notice, Recy Dunn, the director of the city’s charter school office, wrote that Mr. Calderon-Melendez had run up the school’s debts while giving himself a hefty salary and consultant fees -- $378,000 in 2010 -- as well as $40,000 over two years in payroll advances.

At the hearing on Tuesday, the school’s lawyer, Ellen K. Eagen of Hiscock & Barclay, argued that Williamsburg Charter’s board had taken steps in the past eight weeks to turn the school around.

The school’s board members who had conflicts of interest have resolved them or left the board, Ms. Eagen said. They have hired a management firm, Charter School Business Management, to review the school’s books. And the board has fired Mr. Calderon-Melendez, who Ms. Eagen called the source of most of the school’s troubles.

“I want to make it very clear, chancellor, that Eddie is gone,” she told Kathleen Grimm, the deputy schools chancellor who led the hearing. “He is no longer involved with this school.”

Mr. Calderon-Melendez, who opened Williamsburg Charter in 2004 and went on to form the Believe High School Network in Brooklyn, suffered from “founder’s syndrome,” Ms. Eagen said, which she recognized from her experience as a former teacher and school administrator.

Like some other founders, she said, Mr. Calderon-Melendez was charming and charismatic but ran his school with little influence from others. “We had one person calling the shots,” she said.

Williamsburg Charter is not the only school in Mr. Calderon-Melendez’s charter network facing closing. In January the city announced that it would shut down the other two Believe charter schools -- Believe Northside Charter High School and Believe Southside Charter High School, both in Williamsburg -- though the state granted Northside a last-minute reprieve last week.

But while removing Mr. Calderon-Melendez is a step in the right direction, said Chad Pimentel, a lawyer with the Department of Education, the move was not enough to fix Williamsburg Charter. Years of mismanagement, he said, have saddled the school with as much as $6 million in debt.

Ms. Eagen disputed that the debt was that high, but could not provide a more accurate figure.

It had been difficult to prepare for the meeting, she added, because the city had not sent her a detailed list of its concerns with the school until late Monday morning.

While the city’s attempt to close Williamsburg Charter is rooted in its financial and management troubles, the school’s academic record is less than stellar, Mr. Pimentel said.

It received a C on its 2009 progress report, a D in 2010 and a C in 2011 -- grades that would put the school in danger of closing anyway, Mr. Pimentel said. (Peninsula Preparatory Charter School, a Queens charter school identified in January for closing because of its lackluster academics, received C's on each of its last three progress reports.)

But Cheniah Deane, a 17-year-old senior who attended the hearing along with several teachers and administrators, said the school’s financial woes had not affected her education.

She travels more than an hour to Williamsburg Charter each day from Canarsie, she said, and her commute used to be even longer -- about two hours each way -- when she lived in Mill Basin, which is not near a subway line. “I made the travel because it was worth it,” she said.

Ms. Grimm, the deputy chancellor, has asked Ms. Eagen to submit a breakdown of the school's debts by next week. Frank Thomas, a Department of Education spokesman, said Ms. Grimm expected to make a decision on whether to close the school by the end of the month.