Somewhere, there’s a cautionary tale in the dissolution of Peachtree Hope Charter School after its inaugural year, but only if we know the facts of what led the board to abruptly sever its management and curriculum contract, stranding more than 500 students. (Some children found spots at the new charter school that opens for the first day of classes tomorrow in the Memorial Drive location, the well-respected Ivy Prep. But some students have returned to the DeKalb elementary schools in the Towers cluster.)
Peachtree Hope had opened under the imprimatur of the now defunct state Charter Schools Commission, ruled unconstitutional this year by the state Supreme Court. I was in Peachtree Hope twice this past year and was impressed with the facility in a formerly desolate Memorial Drive shopping center. The principal was young and enthusiastic. All seemed to be humming along nicely.
Peachtree Hope was run by Sabis International Schools Network, a for-profit education management firm that generally has high marks for its other schools. The Minnesota-based Sabis ran the school and provided the curriculum. The company blames a meddling board that inserted itself into the daily workings of the school, which is not its role.
Parents complained that the Peachtree Hope board kept them in the dark until it was too late and they had to scramble to find options for their children. But in a recent AJC op-ed, the chairman of the board defended the break with Sabis.
Lonnie King wrote:
Between June 1 and 14, PHCS examined records at the school and discovered serious mismanagement and fiscal problems with SABIS. It became clear that it was not in the best interests of our students to allow SABIS to operate the school as it had the previous school year.
We sought to negotiate a new agreement with SABIS that would include more accountability and certain policy directives. Failing this objective, the board requested to license the SABIS curriculum, which SABIS also declined.
The Peachtree Hope board notified DeKalb County and submitted a new application to operate the school with existing school staff and a new curriculum. The county staff rejected the application.
Throughout June and July, in the process of exercising its oversight responsibility, the board learned additional disturbing details. Significantly, SABIS: failed to meet the targeted scores on the 2011 CRCT as promised to the state of Georgia; under-reported Title I students, resulting in a loss of federal funds in excess of $1 million; apparently hired a director for the school who lacked a teaching certificate, and state certification to serve as a school principal; paid a black teacher less than a less-experienced white teacher; paid staff $552,000 less than the county’s salary scale for similar positions.
SABIS also failed to institute a student remediation program, failed to obtain competitive bids on procurements over $25,000 and paid out thousands of dollars in expenses without authorization of PHCS board.
Had the PHCS board allowed SABIS to operate as it had in the first year, the outcomes would have been abysmal. To make matters worse, just days before the final deadline for filing a new petition, SABIS demanded that all PHCS board members resign and that five new members be recommended by SABIS. This action, had the PHCS board agreed to it, would have created a “lap-dog” board and likely violated the laws regarding nonprofits.
King’s version of events sparked a rebuttal from Mark Peevy, who was the executive director for the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, the commission that approved Peachtree Hope in the first place.
As the former executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, it is readily apparent to me that the success of any given charter school in Georgia hinges on the capacity of the school’s local board (i.e., the non-profit board that is granted the charter by the authorizer) to oversee the school’s successful operation in the best interest of its students. All decisions a board makes must be made with that priority in mind, and the Board must use the same benchmark as it evaluates the potential consequences of its actions. The Board and its members are the ultimate caretakers of the charter, and their primary responsibility is to ensure the successful operation of the school for the sake of its enrolled students.
With that in mind, I was disheartened to follow the fate of Peachtree Hope Charter School in its attempt to find an alternate authorizer in the wake of the Ga Supreme Court’s ruling against the Commission (partially described in the recent op-ed by Lonnie King, the former board chairman of Peachtree Hope Charter School, “Charter school’s board had no choice,” AJC op-ed August 16th).
In an attempt to deflect criticism over the school’s untimely, and completely preventable closing, he makes a series of claims that were never substantiated to the school’s authorizer and maligns a company he (and by extension the PHCS Board) called the “greatest education management company in the world” just six months earlier during the school’s inaugural ceremony.
As its authorizer, we at the Commission closely monitored the actions of PHCS and its board during its inaugural year of operation. We saw a successful school that was operating smoothly and on its way to a very good start, and we fully believed it would continue its success if allowed to remain open. We had no doubts in the ability of SABIS as a management company to continue to manage the school successfully. The various claims against SABIS made by Mr. King were never presented to the Commission as its authorizing entity, and to my knowledge they were never substantiated as part of the PHCS new charter application to either DeKalb County or the State Board of Education. If there is any truth at all to the allegations, it was the PHCS Board’s responsibility to have monitored its management company throughout the school year and bring any issues to light as soon as they arose. The board’s inaction on these issues (if they truly existed) certainly created cause for concern over their continued capacity to oversee the school..
As Mr. King states in his Op-Ed, the PHCS Board applied for a local charter on 1 June 2011 from DeKalb County School System with SABIS as its management company, and the charter was subsequently approved by DCSS. The PHCS Board then “changed its mind” a few days later and submitted a new petition to DCSS in which it attempted to introduce a new curriculum and a plan for self-management (neither of which are decisions to be taken lightly and created on a whim). The timing of this decision alone indicates that the PHCS Board was not diligent in its thought process on the initial submission, and it put both DCSS and the State BOE in a position to have serious concerns with the PHCS Board’s capacity to continue to operate the school.
After the recent Supreme Court ruling, all 16 former Commission schools faced the same situation of finding an alternate authorizer. The respective boards of the eight Commission schools that were already in operation had the same options in front of them, and Peachtree Hope Charter School is the only one that is now closed. In the end, the PHCS board did have a choice. Sadly, for the hundreds of DeKalb students and families, the board chose a path of self-inflicted injury that was entirely unnecessary and avoidable, and provided a vivid portrait of the “actions have consequences” dynamic that should be an example for other charter school boards throughout the State.
From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog