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Washington moves to close charter school for first time amid multiple violations

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(The Center Square) – The Washington State Charter School Commission voted on Friday to close one of its schools, marking the first time it’s moved to revoke a charter since beginning to allow the format in 2012.

The first to go is Pullman Community Montessori, the only charter school on Washington’s side of the Palouse. Friday’s decision moved to issue a draft resolution formally revoking the school’s charter after an investigation found numerous violations of its agreement with the state.

During the special meeting, Robin McDonald, chair of PCM’s Board of Trustees, pleaded with the commission for more time. The charter school opened around three years ago and serves fewer than 100 students between kindergarten and seventh grade.

“We understand the concerns you’ve raised, and we want to be crystal clear: we take them very seriously,” McDonald said. “We acknowledge the past issues and want to assure you that we’ve taken action. Revoking our charter that this stage would be premature.”

WSCSC’s investigation found several instances of severe bullying at the charter school after receiving a barrage of complaints from families; PCM’s former Head of School was even found to have threatened to retaliate against anyone, including parents and staff, who spoke out publicly about safety concerns at the school.

Additionally, declining enrollment, financial woes and a lack of oversight from PCM’s Board left the school’s reputation in ruins. WSCSC Chair Christine Varela said the commission had received 72 complaints against PCM since January alone.

While funded similarly to public schools, charter schools function differently in that they rely on the guidance of a board of directors rather than a locally elected school board; because of that, the schools typically have more freedom over the curriculums they teach. However, they often receive less funding than public schools that can levy local property taxes.

Opponents of the charter model say it leaves room for a lack of accountability should the board exercise ultimate authority.

Most of those who testified during Friday’s public comment opportunity, including the initial whistleblower and several staff members, supported PCM. However, one parent, Katie Bunch Emerson, was not supportive after pulling her child from the school.

“I firmly believe that many of these individuals should never work with children again,” she said, “because they lack the integrity and assertiveness to hold other adults accountable to keep children safe.”

Emerson supports having a charter school in Pullman but not PCM, noting that despite what happened, some staff who supported the prior administration are still sitting on PCM’s Board.

Charter schools make up the top two public high schools in the nation, with 19 ranking among the top 100, according to the U.S. News & World Report’s 2023-2024 rankings of the best public high schools in the country. Washington currently has 18 publicly-funded yet privately-operated charter schools that enroll around 0.2% of the state’s public school students.

PCM has until June 20 to appeal the commission’s draft resolution before it’s finalized and the school officially closes.