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For charter school finance reform, one company dominates

Disenchanted with the corporate world, Raj Thakkar was skimming job openings in 2003 when he found an ad from a charter school looking for a chief financial officer. He didn’t have any experience in education, but then again, the charter school barely did either: Explore Charter School was only a year old.

Years later, Explore is a growing charter school network and Thakkar has his own company, Charter School Business Management Inc., that has become one of the most widely consulted financial advisors by New York City charter schools. In a phone conversation yesterday, Thakkar estimated that he’d worked with more than 40 percent of the city’s charter schools at one point or another over the last five years.

Yesterday, the New York branch of the U.S. Small Business Administration recognized Thakkar, giving him and his company the New York City Small Business Person of the Year Award.

Thakkar’s company is unusual in that he has little competition: few firms do the same sort of work in New York, and none specialize in support for charter schools alone. Handling charter school audits, training finance staff, and coming in when schools are on the verge of bankruptcy requires a special knowledge of charter school law and accounting that few possess. Often, the people running charter schools don’t have this knowledge. When it comes time to figure out payroll or how to account for every check written in the last year, they run into trouble.

“People who start these schools are educators, so the last thing they ever thought about is how do I finance my renovations over the summer?” said Dirk Tillotson, who runs a program that helps mom-and-pop charter schools get started. Thakkar’s company has worked with many of Tillotson’s schools.

“When the house is on fire, he [Raj] can come put that out and understand that it’s unfortunate, but it’s not so surprising; it doesn’t deserve moral condemnation. His attitude is: ‘Let’s do the job and get of the way,'” Tillotson said.

Thakkar said that school founders often come to him when they’re opening and don’t have anyone to oversee their finances. In some cases, schools outsource all of their financial work to the company or ask for Thakkar’s help in hiring someone. In others, they already have a business staff, but want the company to train those people.

“We appear and reappear whenever schools want us to,” Thakkar said.

His clients have included small start-up schools like Growing Up Green Charter School and Lavelle Prep Charter School, but he has also worked for growing networks like Public Prep and Ascend.

Charter school finances don’t get much attention until something goes wrong. And then, they’re often a major reason why schools are closed. Last year, when the city’s Department of Education recommended that the state revoke East New York Preparatory‘s charter, many of the reasons officials cited were financial. Another school, Kingsbridge Innovative Design, could lose its charter this year for fiscal mismanagement.

Two of the schools Thakkar has worked with — Ross Global Academy and Harlem Day — will close at the end of this year. Both are being closed for their low test scores.

“The educators opening charter schools often don’t realize they’re running rapidly expanding multi-million dollar businesses,” Thakkar said.

“The majority of the more 600 schools that have been shut down since ’92 have been mostly closed for financial mismanagement. So to me that’s a travesty. That’s fixable,” he said.

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