Friday, April 9, 2021

NH: Another Lesson In Charter School Failure

Stephanie Alicea has been around education for a while. She was the Community Service Coordinator at Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook, NH from 2003 to 2007. In 2010 she went back finished a BA in Psychology and went right into a MEd program at New England College. She taught health and phys ed at various high schools. 

In 2016, her son Samuel, a Black football player at Merimack HS, took a knee at a football game. Alicea's teammates were supportive, but the larger community kicked back hard--years later, Alicea talked about a BB gun shooting at his grandmother's car. So Stephanie Alicea pulled her son from the public school and enrolled him in private Tilton. She said she borrowed money from her mother and took five jobs to help pay for the move. And in 2017, when the New Hampshire senate made an attempt to push education savings accounts, Alicea was one of the spokepeople there to support the voucher proposal.

That was early in 2017. By the fall of that year, she was proposing a charter school of her own. Capital City Charter School would be a service learning charter, she told the State Board of education when looking for authorization. The Board expressed concerns--the application looked a little thin on things like variety of board members and some board members were concerned that the financials were not strong enough. "It just feels like it needs more infrastructure," said board member Bill Duncan. It seems obvious that very little in Alicea's background suggested she was ready to start and operate an entire school. The head of the NH Alliance for Public [sic] Charter Schools said he thought the board was just looking at an outdated application. 

In the fall of 2018, Capital City was launched in Concord in the Steeplegate Mall in the old Bon-Ton (a department store chain that went belly up in 2018). Frank Edelblut, New Hampshire's hugely unqualified education commissioner, took a tour and said, "I love the location, the facility and how it's laid out, the open concept, the fluidity."

Problems emerged almost immediately. The board's acting chair is Caroletta Alicea, a three-term Democratic NH state representative and Stephanie Alicea's mother. State and federal financial audits were not submitted. The school's charter allowed for up to 330 students, but only about four dozen enrolled

And the school's financial records were loaded with problems. Caroletta Alicea received a $14,550 repayment of a loan, though the school could not say what the money was spent on. The school later sent out a note saying that rumors of financial troubles were not true. 

In February, the school surrendered its charter just ahead of a state hearing about the school's finances. In the wake of that decision, the state canceled its hearing but the NH Attorney General has launched an investigation. And just this week, the school filed for bankruptcy

Capital City owes money to everybody. They owe rent to Steeplegate ($84K), the Small Business Administration (($81K), the IRS ($9K), the security company ($26K), Unitil utility company ($8K), Easter Heat Pump Mechanical ($8K), a couple of dispute resolution companies, a CPA, the city water and fire departments, and Comcast. 

Capital City took $223,000 from the first round of federal grants, but auditors found that only $66,000 of that was spent on "allowable activity." 

Stephanie Alicea was supposed to be paid a total of $47,500. Instead, the school paid her over $89,000. Money was spent on all manner of expenses--food, Ubers, plane tickets, fitness memberships, iTunes downloads, Best Buy purchases, many payments that were not properly documented, contracted amounts that didn't match the final payments, cash withdrawals with no paper trail. 

In the end, the school had burned through about three quarters of a million dollars of state and federal taxpayer dollars. New Hampshire's Department of Education says it can't even figure out how or where the $535,000 from the state was spent. It appears that money is simply gone, used up by a school that only lasted two years and served fewer than fifty students.

There has been fallout for the Aliceas. The NH GOP has called on Carolea Alicea to resign, while news organizations have been digging out Stephanie Alicea's court records (domestic violence, stalking, defaulting on a car loan). 

New Hampshire's legislators twice turned down a $46 million charter school grant from the feds, but when the GOP took control of legislature, they accepted that money to expand and replicate charter schools in the Granite State. While the debate about accepting those funds was raging, Edelblut said 
“New Hampshire charter schools have not only provided excellent educations for Granite State students, but provided a model for innovation and education improvement for the nation." 

Governor Chris Sununu backed that charter grant as well, but when asked in March if maybe someone should pay closer attention to how that federal taxpayer money was being spent, he said that background checks were no big deal and the state board or the legislature would need to address the issue.

Stephanie Alicea doesn't seem like a grifter so much as a woman who got in way, way over her head in a system that provided little oversight and virtually no assistance at all other than handing over stacks of money. But it is yet another example (among the many many many logged in reports on the waste of federal charter grant money) of how charters can waste taxpayer money and provide virtually nothing in return. If New Hampshire intends to spend $46 million of US taxpayer money on charter schools, it needs to pay better attention than it did this time. 

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