The future of Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School hangs in the balance after the state’s Charter Authorizing Panel unanimously voted to close the publicly funded charter school during Wednesday’s meeting. Now, the decision will be up for review by the Arkansas Department of Education’s state board in January.

“… We do want to reiterate that we know that this isn’t something that has just begun recently,” said deputy commissioner Ivy Pfeffer after the vote and discussion. “It has been an ongoing situation. So, we don’t take our responsibility here lightly. It’s a very difficult decision, but we do have to insure that the needs of students are being met.”

Jeremy Cegers, Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School superintendent and principal, made a 15-minute presentation before the board where he discussed increased enrollment, the school’s impact on the community along with their goals for academic improvement in reading, math, science and English.

Back in October, the Arkansas Department of Education released letter grades as part of the 2019 State and Federal Accountability Reports. Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School, which currently enrolls 116 students, received an F for the 2018-2019 school year.

“I understand the concerns that are in question today and I am extremely thankful for the opportunity to come in and present necessary information to demonstrate that we are a positive component to the community in Pine Bluff, Arkansas,” he said.

During the review, issues such as finance, child nutrition and academic performance were topics of concern. According to Heather Barrick, Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education program fiscal manager, the school is projected to end the year in the red at a “negative $22, 146.69.”

“Some of the issues that I have identified was that there were too low of budgets for the year,” Barrick said. “One of the major issues that we had was with food services. At this point, none of the food services invoices have been paid.”

It wasn’t until this week on Dec. 17 that Barrick says a food service contract was signed noting that one hadn’t been signed at the start of the school year. Southeast Arkansas Preparatory now has a contract for 85 meals a day with the Pine Bluff School District.

“They have been billed, but none of them have been paid,” said Barrick of the $$33, 259.10 food services invoices. “So, they are still outstanding.”

In addition to the food service contract, Barrick rattled off other problems including no budget for workers comp and the Arkansas Teacher’s Retirement charge not getting paid.

“In the month of November there were quite a few outstanding invoices that were not paid,” she said. “Their rent wasn’t paid, their Internet service wasn’t paid, water wasn’t paid, waste management was actually paid in December on the 11th, janitorial services were paid in December [and] the benefits for the Nov. 29th payroll had not been paid yet.”

Panel members discovered the school was cutting checks to cover costs, but not mailing them until they had the revenue. Greg Rogers, Arkansas Department of Education chief financial officer, described the school’s cash flow problem as a “fiscal integrity” issue.

“It looks like the checks are being put into e-finance, but they are not being sent until they have assured there’s money in their bank account,” he said. “So, that’s another issue that I have to…”

Members were also shocked to learn that 11 special needs students were not provided adequate education per the individual education plans. The school’s failure to do so will require them to provide compensatory instruction for at least two months causing more financial strain on the charter school.

The state board can either support the decision made by the Charter Authorizing Panel to close the school or vote to do a separate review to conduct their own hearing on Southeast Arkansas Preparatory High School before coming to a final decision.

Pine Bluff Lighthouse Elementary School also went before the panel on Wednesday. For the past two years, the charter school has received an F grade on the State and Federal Accountability Reports. After hearing the school’s improvement plan, which included goals for academic performance and reading interventions, the panel unanimously voted that the charter’s report be presented during January’s state Board of Education meeting.

The plan for success also includes a partnership with the Pine Bluff School District that involves a literacy program for students in the fifth grade along with a summer start program for incoming students. If the charter’s plan for improvement is accepted, it will give them two years before they have to go before the Charter Authorizing Panel again. The plan will be presented to the board in January in which a decision will be made then.