Charter schools are not faring well in the national press where there have been a series of articles about financial mismanagement, including a searing three-part series this week in the Miami Herald.
We are seeing some of the same problems arising in Georgia that the Herald cites in its series. For example, the entry of for-profit management companies into the charter school market has dramatically increased the number of charter schools, but it has also led to the natural tension that results when profits become a driving force in school decisions and motivations. In fact, New York, New Mexico and Tennessee ban for-profit companies from managing charter schools.
But while charter schools have grown into a $400-million-a-year business in South Florida, receiving about $6,000 in taxpayer dollars for every student enrolled, they continue to operate with little public oversight. Even when charter schools have been caught violating state laws, school districts have few tools to demand compliance.
Charter schools have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords — one and the same, in many cases — and rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest. In many instances, the educational mission of the school clashes with the profit-making mission of the management company, a Miami Herald examination of South Florida’s charter school industry has found. Consider:
• Some schools have ceded almost total control of their staff and finances to for-profit management companies that decide how the schools’ money is spent. The Life Skills Center of Miami-Dade County, for example, pays 97 percent of its income to a management company as a “continuing fee.” And when the governing board of two affiliated schools in Hollywood tried to eject its managers, the company refused to turn over school money it held — and threatened to press criminal charges against any school officials who attempted to access the money.
• Many management companies also control the land and buildings used by the schools — sometimes collecting more than 25 percent of a school’s revenue in lease payments, in addition to management fees. The owners of Academica, the state’s largest charter school operator, collect almost $19 million a year in lease payments on school properties they control in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, audit and property records show.
• Charter schools often rely on loans from management companies or other insiders to stay afloat, making charter school governing boards beholden to the managers they oversee. Loans to two Pompano Beach schools were disguised as gifts in financial documents to avoid scrutiny from the school district and make struggling schools appear solvent, the schools’ former managers said in court papers.
It is typically financial issues that land charter schools on the front page in Georgia, and that is what is happening to a well regarded local school. The AJC is reporting that Fulton school chief Robert Avossa is recommending that the school board deny a 10-year renewal to the award-winning Fulton Science Academy Middle School, the first Georgia charter campus to win the national Blue Ribbon School Award.
Avossa wants more district control over the charter school because of a financial misstep so the system is recommending a three-year renewal rather than 10 years. As is often the case when financial problems are cited, parents counter that the charter school is doing a terrific job at educating their children.
Avossa said past “issues” with the school bring a need for more checks and balances by district staff over its operations. Fulton Science, in its 10th year, serves more than 500 students and receives $3.9 million in state and local funding.
The charter campus paid more than $150,000 to a nonprofit without first putting the contract out for bid, creating an apparent conflict of interest. The school’s executive director and principal served on the board of the Grace Institute for Educational Research and Resources, which contracts with schools to provide technical support, professional development and purchasing services.
School district staff has advised Fulton Science that it could amend its application and reapply for a three-year contract. The shorter term would bring the middle school under the same renewal schedule as its affiliate campuses, Fulton Science Academy High School and Fulton Sunshine Academy. The schools joined together to borrow $18 million in revenue bonds from the city of Alpharetta’s Development Authority to help pay for a new campus, which opens in the fall. It will eventually house all three schools.
Fulton Science is the only county charter school to still operate under a “blanket waiver.” The district discontinued the practice after other schools with full flexibility had to shut down, including one with fiscal problems. Leaders at the middle school say they have a proven academic record and should be allowed to continue to operate with necessary flexibility from state laws over education, including mandates over class size, instructional time and teacher certification.
On Tuesday, nearly 100 Fulton Science parents, students and supporters packed a board workshop.
Fulton Science parent and board member Angela Lasseter cited the school’s success, including outperforming the district’s other middle schools for the fourth year in a row on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. “At no time during this process was [the] Fulton County school system willing to discuss the charter terms,” she said. “Instead Fulton County staff has dictated a three-year charter term to us that is below the national and state guidelines and considered punitive.”
The school’s charter contract expires June 30. Its leaders said the school could live with an eight-year renewal. If the matter is not resolved, it could delay the school’s plans to relocate and expand to accommodate a waiting list of students.
As the school prepared to apply for renewal, the district investigated its finances and found problems with the $156,000 contract with the Grace Institute. County school officials criticized Fulton Science for failing to follow the procurement process and said that relationships between the school and the nonprofit were a “conflict of interest” because they shared common board members, said Laura Stowell, the charter liaison for Fulton County Schools. The principal and the executive director have since resigned from the Grace board. They said they were not paid for their work.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog