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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pride Prep charter school in Spokane faces tough questions over academic and financial performance

Elias Baldwin Bonney, right, a senior at Pride Prep in Spokane, listens as school founder and Superintendent Brenda McDonald talks about the school Tuesday, April 27, 2021 in the hall at the school. Baldwin-Bonney is planning to pursue a theater major at NYU when he graduates.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Inside the Pride Schools building on East Sprague Avenue, students are building, collaborating and dreaming.

But like many of its students, Spokane’s largest public charter school is facing some growing pains.

On Wednesday night, Pride Schools, made up of Pride Prep Middle School and Innovation High School, will face some tough questions about its academic and financial performance in recent years, and may need to meet some additional conditions for its charter to be renewed.

A review presented to the Pride board in the 2018-19 academic year compared with other public schools in the district shows Pride Schools receiving several D’s in scores related to proficiency, progress and attendance. It also shows failing grades for scores related to accountability.

No action will be taken Wednesday. However, Superintendent Brenda McDonald expects Spokane Public Schools – which authorized Pride Schools’ charter – to “hold us accountable for doing what we are saying we are doing.”

Located eight blocks east of downtown, the school was founded in 2015 by McDonald, a former principal at Garry Middle School with the dream of offering a project-based alternative for children who are “seeking something different,” she said.

For senior Elias Baldwin-Bonney, that difference has been a game-changer, a chance to make a bigger impact as a drama major in a smaller setting.

“I could not feel any more prepared for the real-world experience after attending Pride Prep,” said Baldwin-Bonney, who plans to attend New York University this fall.

A moment later, staff member and parent Jamie Tabino raved about the school’s transformative effect on her son, Lincoln.

Entering Pride Prep as an anxious sixth-grader, he’s now a junior at the partnering Innovation High and pursuing a career in digital media.

“He’s completely changed,” Tabino said.

Yet even as it prepares to graduate its first senior class, the school faces some significant challenges.

Standardized test scores in 2017-18 were well below those in SPS.

“The concern centered on student performance and growth,” said Heather Bybee, the district’s chief academic officer.

Scores dropped again the following year, prompting a shift in emphasis toward a more rigorous International Baccalaureate program.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of data McDonald said she believes would demonstrate progress.

“We see promising data from math assessments and interim assessment scores,” McDonald said. “Our kids are exceeding the benchmarks on the PSAT.”

However, in the absence of standardized test results since 2019, the school is stuck with a grade of D in most categories.

The school’s financial difficulties are a product of state policies and its own expansion. Pride Schools occupies an old Sears warehouse and the former local Social Security office. The charters’ building offered room to grow, a perfect situation as McDonald and her staff added a new grade each year.

Finally this year, Pride Schools has its full complement of seven grade levels. However, revenue slowly fell behind rent and other expenses. Currently, it has cash reserves for 30 days instead of the required 60 days.

Independent audits also showed poor cash flow and an insufficient debt-to-asset ratio.

State policies haven’t helped.

Cindy Coleman, SPS’s chief academic officer, acknowledged that several years ago, charter schools were counting on property tax revenue that never materialized.

“Some revenue streams they were expecting when they started, they are not getting,” she said.

Because of that, charter schools in Washington operate on about 15% less money than traditional districts.

Meanwhile, Pride Schools hired a new financial team – “doing a deep analysis and looking for some cost savings,” McDonald said.

The financial picture is also improving, said McDonald, who expects to have 45 days’ worth of cash on hand by the end of the fiscal year on Aug. 31 and 60 days’ worth by next year.

As the district that authorized the creation of the charter school, SPS is required to review, evaluate and approve or reject charter applications based on identified education needs and promote a diversity of educational choice.

It also must monitor performance against the established academic, financial and organizational benchmarks and prepare and submit an annual report to the State Board of Education.