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Exeter charter school closing amid investigation into alleged fraud and embezzlement

The exterior of a two-story brown building, with lights on in the bottom story
Coastal Waters Chartered Public School
Families in the Seacoast rallied around the alternative school when it opened in 2022, but some say they saw warning signs of mismanagement early on.

A charter school in Exeter is closing less than two years after it opened, as former school officials face an ongoing investigation for alleged embezzlement and fraud.

“We tried everything that we could to save the school but sadly, the obstacles were insurmountable,” Jennifer Roopenian, the current chair of the Coastal Waters Chartered Public School board of trustees, told NHPR via email on Sunday.

Roopenian said the board learned of another “financial discrepancy” last week, and “despite our attempts to find a solution, the board had to make the heartbreaking decision to close the school.”

The development comes as the Exeter Police Department is pursuing two investigations into former officials associated with the school, which served students from kindergarten through 12th grade. One investigation involves alleged tampering with a public record; the other involves alleged embezzlement. State agencies, including the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office and New Hampshire Department of Education, say they are also communicating with the police about the allegations but declined to give more details.

'They sold a really good story about the Waldorf method, about how kids would be learning in traditional ways as well as Waldorf ways. But that’s not what happened.'
Stephanie Carr Thomas, a former Coastal Waters parent

Coastal Waters Chartered Public School opened in 2022 with a mission inspired by Waldorf teaching, which focuses on arts, nature and creativity. But some parents say there were red flags that the school was in trouble early on, and no one — the state, or the school board of trustees — was providing proper oversight to ensure its success.

By this winter, the school had lost more than half its student population since its opening year.

“They sold a really good story about the Waldorf method, about how kids would be learning in traditional ways as well as Waldorf ways,” says Stephanie Carr Thomas, a former Coastal Waters parent who pulled her children out of the school in 2022. “But that’s not what happened.”

Early on, ‘a lot of excitement and positivity’

Coastal Waters Chartered Public School is one of a handful of charters that have opened in New Hampshire amid increased funding and a growing interest in school choice. Charter schools are approved by the State Board of Education and receive funding directly from the state, about $9,000 per student. In 2022, Coastal Waters also won a $1.36 million federal grant as part of the New Hampshire Department of Education’s charter school expansion initiative.

Nicole Mazur, a former Coastal Waters parent and board member, said the school’s alternative vision drew families who couldn’t afford private school but wanted more personalized, outdoor-based education for their kids. And at the beginning, she said, many parents tried to help the school succeed.

“There were people wanting to help and volunteer, and helping to work out whatever kinks there were, just saying: ‘Tell me where to be and I'll be there, and we'll help,’’’ Mazur recalled. “There was a lot of excitement and positivity.”

But she said that excitement quickly gave way to concerns about the school’s facilities and finances.

Coastal Waters Chartered Public School

Coastal Waters administrators found a former office building in Exeter where they could operate, but there were months of delays due to renovations. Parents said, for most of the past year, many classes met under outdoor tents. As recently as December 2023, some classes were meeting at nearby summer camps or local gyms. Other classes switched to weeks of online remote learning because of facility delays, parents said.

Charter schools often struggle to find and renovate facilities, in part because they can’t turn to local taxpayers to fund initial building costs. But Coastal Waters’ timeline for moving permanently inside changed multiple times. Classes that did move into the building didn’t have access to sufficient cleaning materials or a clean bathroom, several parents said.

The former pedagogical director for the school, Erica Taylor, who oversaw its operations, left earlier this winter and did not respond to NHPR’s request for comment.

In late 2022, Mazur and several other parents quit the board of trustees and pulled their kids out of the school, citing concerns about their children’s well-being and lack of financial transparency by the board chairman and treasurer, William Libby. Libby did not respond to NHPR’s request for comment.

Reports from both the state and the school show that enrollment continued to shrink over the last year, from 128 students in 2022 to 47 students as of last week.

Concerns about oversight

Multiple parents who pulled their students out of Coastal Waters praised some of the teachers — and said they still believed in the school’s vision. But they said the experience left them with serious concerns about the broader oversight of charter schools in New Hampshire.

Charter schools are required to file annual financial reports with the state, submit an accountability plan and undergo a thorough renewal process every five years. By some accounts, many charter schools are flourishing; according to the state department of education, charter school enrollment has increased by 35% in the last five years. And New Hampshire recently won national recognition for the overall high performance of its charter school students.

But other charter schools have faltered. Financial woes and shrinking enrollment has shut down four of them in the last four years. And at Coastal Waters, it’s unclear what level of oversight the state was providing.

'There is a huge desire for alternatives to public schooling. But there's also a huge opportunity for exploitation there.'
Jesse Peloski, who withdrew his children from Coastal Waters in late 2022

According to emails shared with NHPR, several former parents and board members raised concerns about board leadership and student health and safety with the New Hampshire Department of Education as early as November 2022, within several months of the school opening.

One parent noted there wasn’t an obvious system for checking attendance or clear curriculum for teachers. They also flagged unsafe conditions in a kindergarten classroom.

It is unclear when the Department of Education first learned of the school’s financial troubles.

According to an email from Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut to a parent earlier this month, representatives from Coastal Waters had been meeting monthly with the State Board of Education since September 2023.

In response to a question about when the Department of Education first became aware of concerns, spokesperson Kimberly Houghton wrote to NHPR that it was “during the normal course of charter school oversight.”

“The New Hampshire Department of Education became aware of a suspect document that Coastal Waters Chartered Public School provided to the Department,” she wrote. “The Department brought this document to the attention of local police and the State Board of Education. NHED has an ongoing investigation into this matter.”

She did not provide additional information on the nature of the investigation before this story was published, but followed up on Monday to clarify that the department's inquiry is an "investigation regarding use of funds," not regarding educator misconduct.

Exeter Police Chief Stephan Poulin said his department opened its first investigation into the school in late September; it opened another one on Dec. 21, 2023.

Some Coastal Waters families say it’s unclear what power the education department has in its own investigation. The department’s misconduct investigations typically involve licensed individuals who have violated the educator code of conduct or code of ethics. But some former Coastal Waters officials didn’t have New Hampshire educator licenses to begin with.

The state requires charter schools to ensure at least half of its teaching staff either hold state certification or have three years of teaching experience. Roopenian, the current Coastal Waters board chair, said the school’s most recent teaching staff met those requirements.

Jesse Peloski, who withdrew his children from Coastal Waters in late 2022, said he worries the mechanisms for reporting and monitoring concerns about charter schools are “potentially very broken.”

“There is a huge desire for alternatives to public schooling,” he said. “But there's also a huge opportunity for exploitation there.”

Roopenian, the current board chair, acknowledged in a statement Sunday night the “significant number of challenges with enrollment, finances, and facilities” Coastal Waters faced since its opening.

“The new Board and school administrators, along with the faculty had been meeting diligently to explore a path forward, and up until this point we steadfastly believed that there was a viable strategy for the recovery and success of the school,” she wrote. “However, recent financial and administrative discrepancies that were uncovered have proven too great for the school to overcome. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to our supportive families, it was an honor to teach your children.”

Many families who were until recently enrolled at Coastal Waters are now trying to transfer credits to nearby private and public schools. In an email to the state education department, one parent said she wasn’t sure whether their studies at Coastal Waters actually provided credits that would count toward her kids’ graduation.

“Our children deserve an education setting they feel meets their needs and we as parents deserve the choice of where our children receive that education,” she told state officials.

But, she added, “without transparent oversight or the same legal requirements as public schools, our children were put at risk multiple times and their education has suffered.”

Updated: January 29, 2024 at 1:02 PM EST
The New Hampshire Department of Education reached out to clarify the nature of their investigation into Coastal Waters after this story was originally published. We also added additional context on the requirements for charter school educators.
Corrected: January 29, 2024 at 12:50 PM EST
An earlier version of this story misspelled Jesse Peloski's last name. It has been updated with the correct spelling.
Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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