City school officials acknowledged that the operators have long been well regarded in the community and said the recommendations were not intended to disparage the operators.
"School reform is really hard work, and these recommendations shouldn't be viewed as an individual rejection of an individual operator," said Alison Perkins-Cohen, who oversees the district's office of new initiatives. "We don't want to discourage partners that are taking on some really hard jobs, but we also don't want to continue having schools that aren't serving kids well."
In addition to reviewing academic data from 2008 to 2012, district officials looked at the charter schools' financial audits, surveys of the school community, and two days of observations that included interviews with staff, students and parents.
In the case of Bluford, 61 percent of students passed the state reading tests and 46 percent passed math in the 2011-2012 school year — a performance that lagged behind the city's public schools.
But district officials said the school's finances raised the biggest red flag. In 2010, auditors concluded that there was "substantial doubt" that the charter school was a viable business.
"If you look nationally, the reason that charter schools fail is because of financial concerns," said Perkins-Cohen. "There's a big difference between knowing how to educate and knowing how to run a business. And charter schools are a business."
Stokes — who earned $79,997 as Bluford's chief operating officer in fiscal year 2009 — said the school fell victim to financial mismanagement.
He also served on the panel that made the recent contract renewal recommendations, though district officials said he recused himself from any discussions involving Bluford to avoid a conflict of interest.
Stokes said the school couldn't order textbooks after it lost its credit line, and that the organization began shifting resources from its east campus to its west campus, a high school it opened in the former Walbrook High School building three years ago.
He also said the school owed $75,000 between 2009 and 2010 in unpaid utility bills and had to rely on loans from the school system to pay them.
Stokes said that the school — which paid its executive director $120,000 and its business manager $80,000 in fiscal year 2011, according to the latest available data — had abandoned many of its trademarks, such as 12-hour days, Saturday school, summer programs and feeding students three meals a day.
"They're a great group of kids," Stokes said. "It just bothers us greatly, those of us who originally founded the school. Those who we handed it over to screwed it up."
Council President Young declined to comment.
Bluford operators said some of the school's financial trouble stems from a theft by a former employee.
Court documents show that a 32-year-old Baltimore woman was convicted in a 2010 felony theft and ordered to repay the school $63,793. Tanea Williamson, of the 1500 block of Shadyside Road, was given a three-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty. A city judge ordered her to begin making $300 payments to the school beginning in May 2010.
"We had a hard time catching up," Emery, Bluford's board chairwoman, said. "But we're getting back on track."
The school has hired an independent accounting firm to manage its finances, she said, and slowly programs are starting to come back. She said academics have begun to improve under the school's new principal.
But, Emery added, other numbers should count just as much.
The school boasts a 97 percent attendance rate, and only one student has been picked up by police since its inception, she said. Nine students made up the largest group of Baltimore students ever to be selected for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth program, and the school's robotics team took first place in a national robotics competition.
Charter and independent schools faced financial, academic challenges
Schools fighting closures connected to high-profile figures and institutions
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