Anna Phillips is a staff reporter at GothamSchools.
Two Brooklyn charter high schools have been placed on probation by state education officials, putting them on a path that could lead to their being closed.
The two schools, Believe Northside Charter High School and Believe Southside Charter High School, which opened in 2009, are both managed by the Believe High School Network.
A third high school operated by the network, Williamsburg Charter, which opened in 2004, was placed on probation on Sept. 16 by city education officials.
All three schools, which were founded by Edward Calderon-Melendez, the network’s chief executive, have been under investigation by the office of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York for several months because of questions about their financial management. They face possible closing if they do not follow the city and state’s recommendations in the next year.
Cliff Chuang, director of the state’s charter school office, sent probation orders to Northside and Southside on Wednesday, charging that trustees at both schools had little knowledge of their own finances and appeared to have surrendered financial and operational control to the Believe network, which has left both schools in debt and almost unable to act independently.
Believe has also kept city education officials in the dark and has not shown them its annual budget for the 2010-11 school year or its projections for 2011-12, according to the probation orders.
According to the state, although the Northside and Southside schools share a city-owned building in Williamsburg and do not pay rent, they are $161,779 and $117,213 in debt, respectively. Yet the probation orders state that when the chairwomen of the schools’ boards of trustees, Candace Cobo of Northside and Marcenia Johnson of Southside, spoke with state officials, both demonstrated an “alarming lack of familiarity” with the fiscal issues facing their schools, including the schools’ current financial conditions.
“Given the negative working capital position of the school, and a networkwide pattern of significant expense-side budget variances, the long-term viability of this school” remains in question, Mr. Chuang wrote in both schools’ probation orders.
A lawyer for the Believe network schools, Sharon McCarthy, said the schools would work to correct their mistakes.
“Everyone is disappointed this has happened, but we are making a concerted effort to work directly with the State Department of Education to address the issues raised in the probation reports,” Ms. McCarthy said. “I think this is fixable, and they’re committed to fixing it.”
Mr. Chuang’s notices charge the schools with overstating their enrollments, saying each billed the city for 300 students. Southside has an enrollment of 246 this year and Northside has 267.
In addition, both schools have violated state law by having fewer than five voting board members, according to the state. The skeletal boards that do exist have met only four times in the last year, and several of their members have conflicts of interest that they have not disclosed, according to the state.
Information on the Believe network’s Web site suggests that its schools’ board members are, in some cases, also network employees. Jonna Caramico, for example, is listed as both a special education consultant to Williamsburg Charter and a board member for Southside.
The probation notices also said both schools were open for 180 days last year, instead of the required 186.