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Odyssey Charter faces renewed scrutiny

Delaware Public Media

A week after thinking it might have resolved the major remaining issue of its probation, Odyssey Charter School is once again in hot water with the state Department of Education.

Secretary of Education Susan Bunting notified the school that it is being placed on formal review for possible violations of its charter and of a probation imposed last July that remains in effect until June 30, according to a announcement made Friday by the  Department of Education.

“Additionally, Bunting condemns the discriminatory statements regarding Academia Antonia Alonso Charter School allegedly made by board members in a recording of a board meeting publicly released,” that announcement added.

That condemnation refers to remarks made by unidentified board members during a January 15 meeting of the school’s board of directors about whether a solution to traffic control problems would be to “put a fence up” or “build a wall” separating Odyssey’s buildings from the building occupied by Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language Spanish-English charter school. Academia rents the building from Odyssey, which acquired 35 acres of the Barley Mill Plaza office park west of Wilmington in 2015 after the DuPont Co. shut down its operations there.

The discriminatory comments became an issue earlier this week when the Blue Delaware blog published a commentary that included a link to the recording of the board meeting that had been posted to Odyssey’s website.

“This is a distressing process for our entire OCS community,” said Josiah Wolcott, president of Odyssey’s board of directors in a statement issued Friday afternoon. He called the comments “hurtful and insensitive” and said he has asked for the resignation of the board member responsible for the remark.

“The board is taking, and will continue to take, essential first steps to address accountability, heighten inclusivity awareness and provide sensitivity training to better serve our diverse community,” Wolcott said, adding that he has advised leaders at Academia Antonia Alonso of the steps he will be taking.

The Blue Delaware blog post also included a link to a December 3 meeting that at which the qualifications of candidates for openings on the board were discussed. During that meeting, one board member suggested that one candidate, a black woman, should not be appointed merely for the sake of diversity, lest she be regarded as “a token.” According to the blog post, it was not clear whether the reference was to the candidate’s ethnicity or her gender, but the board did choose a white male to fill the vacancy.

Friday’s announcement by the Department of Education did not refer specifically to the comments at the December 3 meeting, but it did state that the department would be reviewing whether Odyssey was complying with probationary terms related to the composition of its board of directors. The school had been given a January 1 deadline to ensure that members or affiliates of Greek fraternal organizations that founded the school no longer held a majority of the seats on the board and that those members no longer have a role in selecting individuals who fill the seats reserved for those who are not members of the fraternal organizations.

In early January, Josiah Wolcott, president of Odyssey’s board of directors, told Delaware Public Media that he was not anticipating any difficulty satisfying the terms of the probation, once issues concerning missing documentation related to an audit were resolved. That documentation was delivered to the Department of Education on January 27. Wolcott said then that he hoped the paperwork would resolve the department’s concerns and that other issues associated with the probation were on track to be completed on time.

Department of Education officials did not elaborate Friday on their statement.

Odyssey was placed on probation last July following a formal review process that began early last year. The Department of Education’s inquiry uncovered multiple issues with regard to the school board’s composition, bylaws and policies, as well as spending irregularities that included more than $91,000 used to plan a preschool program affiliated with the school and about $1,500 on a trip by school officials to attend the convention of a Greek fraternal organization in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Planning for the preschool program has been abandoned, and Odyssey is in the process of recovering the misspent funds prior to the June 30 deadline set in the probation order.

In December, the State Board of Education renewed Odyssey’s charter for another five years, starting on July 1, provided all terms of the current probation are satisfied.

Although Department of Education officials did not elaborate on Friday’s announcement, its wording suggests that compliance with the probation conditions related to board governance will get a fresh look as part of the new formal review process.

If Odyssey fails to comply fully with probation terms, the Department of Education has the authority to revoke the school’s charter.

Despite its management and financial issues, the Greek-themed Odyssey, with more than 1,900 students in its K-12 program, has developed a reputation as one of the strongest academic performers among the state’s 22 charter schools.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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