S&P downgrades Riverhead Charter School’s bond rating

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07/23/2015 6:00 AM |

The Riverhead Charter School’s bond rating was downgraded this week following a state report indicating it’s at risk of closing due to poor performance in various areas, including communication and oversight.

Standard & Poor’s has revised its outlook for the school’s $14 million capital improvement bond from stable to negative and has reduced its bond rating from BBB- to BB+, according to a press release issued by the rating agency Monday.

A 50,000-square-foot building was completed last winter and allows the tuition-free school to expand its program through eighth grade, making it the only K-8 charter school in Suffolk County.

The charter school opened 14 years ago and about 380 students  were enrolled during the 2014-15 school year. Last year, the school’s charter was renewed through June 30, 2017.

S&P primary credit analyst Debra Boyd confirmed Wednesday that her findings were partially based on the state education department’s 2014-15 full-site visit report, which was released in January.

“The downgrade to ‘BB+’ and negative outlook reflect our opinion that the school’s charter could be at risk for non-renewal,” she stated in her report.

Charter school executive director and principal Raymond Ankrum declined to comment on the state’s report. He did, however, issue a statement regarding the latest bond rating.

“The Riverhead Charter School continues to strive for excellence by providing a rigorous education in an environment where students are put first,” Mr. Ankrum wrote in an email. “We are confident that S&P will upgrade our next rating since parent satisfaction surveys are in the 90th percentile, we have made academic gains over the past year and have a 92.5 percent staff retention rate for next year, which is well above the 81 percent national charter school average.”

State education department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie said in an email Wednesday that no determinations about the school’s future have been made.

Ms. Beattie said after the school submits a renewal application, state officials will visit the school and issue a report with its recommendation to the Board of Regents, which ultimately decides on charter school renewals.

“It is both premature and speculative to speak about what could happen to the school at the end of the charter term in 2017,” she said.

During a two-day visit in October, state officials conducted 30 classroom observations, each lasting about 20 minutes. The report’s findings were also based on interviews with school officials, parents and students.

Anonymous online surveys were administered to teachers and parents as well.

The most significant concerns noted in the report include claims about the charter school’s lack of engagement and board oversight, among other concerns.

“Although the school has a welcoming environment and purports to have an ‘open door policy,’ [the school] does not have a systemic process to respond to family and community concerns,” the report states. “Most parents do not feel that the school leader [Mr. Ankrum] effectively communicates with parents. A number of parents also indicated that students are not challenged academically.”

Parents also claimed they believe Mr. Ankrum has acted “in a degrading fashion to parents and staff” and are concerned about the dismissal of teachers, according to the report.

Teacher Jaclyn Scoglio-Walsh was fired in 2013 and teachers Ray Patuano and Brandon Lloyd were fired during the 2013-14 school year, the News-Review previously reported. Kasey Wehrheim, who was the union president at the Riverhead Charter School, was fired in May 2014 after an egg-allergy incident involving a student.

Those teachers have filed complaints with the the New York State Public Employment Relations Board alleging union-busting-type practices at the school. A phone call to the agency seeking comment for an update on those complaints wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday.

The state’s report also cites the charter school’s Board of Trustees for conducting business with only four members between June 2014 and September 2014 since state law and the charter school’s bylaws require a minimum of five members.

Former Riverhead Charter School board member, Renee Harris Thompson, is suing the school and members of its staff after she was not reappointed to her volunteer position at the expiration of her term in May 2014. She claims the charter school’s staff violated her constitutional rights and damaged her reputation in retaliation for her criticism of policy decisions.

Her lawsuit is still pending in federal court.

When the school’s charter was renewed in January 2014, the state education department criticized it for high staff turnover since 2010, test scores that slipped below new Common Core Learning Standards last school year, a lack of any formal evaluation of the principal and violations of state open meetings laws by the school’s board.

But it also praised the school on several fronts, finding that, “overall, the school climate and culture generally support student learning, development and achievement.” The renewal also mentions an October 2013 site visit, during which “all interviewed stakeholders — including staff and students — felt that the charter school is safe and free of harassment or discrimination.”

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