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After chair steps down, charter school's board pledges changes

Parents at a Harlem charter school that’s on probation got what they wanted Tuesday night: The chair of their board resigned.

The resignation took place just minutes into a meeting of the Board of Trustees for New York French American Charter School, the year-old the city put on probation last week because of “serious violations” of its charter and state law. It drew cheers from the standing-room only audience.

Many of the roughly 50 parents who packed a small classroom on the school’s second floor said they had never been to a board meeting before but were anxious about how the board would resolve the school’s administrative woes. Those woes included a lack of communication among board members, parents, and school staff.

Now, parents say they expect communications to improve after the board elected Fabrice Rouah, a financial analyst, to be acting chair.

“He looks at everything with a fresh pair of eyes,” said Claire Zaglauer, who was recently elected president of the school’s brand-new parent-teacher organization. Zaglauer said the board appears poised to add multiple new members in the coming weeks.

Celestin’s resignation “sent a strong signal that the board is willing to take responsibility for the current crisis,” Rouah said in a statement today. “The board’s commitment to the school is stronger than ever, as is our resolve to get the probation lifted.”

During the meeting itself, the board assured parents that some of the problems identified by the DOE had been fixed already and said other resolutions were on the way but would take more time. Lingering problems, they said, include the lack of a permanent principal, trouble securing a long-term home for the school, security breaches, and a lack of cleanliness in the building. Sybil Swain, the school’s director of operations, said the school is also struggling to find a health insurance plan for its staff.

“We’re acting very quickly to get some of these things to where they should have been in the first place,” she said.

Much of the meeting focused on fact that the school does not have an accurate account of its finances, a citation in the probation report that Swain and other board members acknowledged. The board members explained that the accounting firm they had hired had not delivered required services and would be replaced.

Several parents questioned how the school could tackle its problems and pay for new staff members and security services if it doesn’t have a clear picture of how much money it has. But board members assured them that the school would not run out of money.

Still, over the long term, NYFACS will also have to draw new families in to ensure there are sufficient funds, said Ellis Scope, another board member who is also the prin­ci­pal of a public high school for stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties. This year, the school projected full enrollment when applying for its budget from the DOE, but its actual enrollment has fallen significantly short of that target. Making matters worse, Scope said, the school lost most attendance records from between February and June.

DOE officials “were extremely concerned about our ability to account for the number of students,” she said. “They’re saying, if you can’t even do that, then how can you run the school?”

The board chair who resigned, Johnny Celestin, said in an interview after the meeting that he stepped down to appease families who accused him of failing to perform his duties, which included reporting information to the DOE.

“We need for the school to heal,” he said, “and as leader of the school I take full responsibility for where we are.”

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