Closer check on charters

Jun. 19, 2014 @ 09:03 PM

The messy scene unfolding around Kestrel Heights School is an object lesson in why North Carolina’s rapidly increasing charter schools need closer oversight.

This week, the state’s Office of Charter Schools, in a reprimand to Kestrel Height’s failure to follow open meetings laws, reduced its charter extension from five years to three.

The school’s opaque operations not only violated the law, they have deepened questions surrounding turmoil at the school. Last month, the school’s board of directors declined to renew the contract of Tim Dugan, school founder and high school principal.  Several popular teachers were cut loose, and students, staff and parents have had difficulty getting explanations.

Shortly after, Richie Mitchell resigned as executive director and middle school principal.

The board tapped David Malechek to be interim executive director and high school principal. But Malechek after just two weeks bailed out of the mess.

Compounding the problems is the board’s insular nature. It is self-perpetuating, choosing new members without participation of parents or staff.  It has, the state’s letter shortening its charter extension documented, failed to provide proper notice of meetings, has rebuffed people who asked to speak, has failed to keep official minutes at some meetings and has failed to disclose actions.

If these problems were unique, it would be troubling enough.

But other examples abound. Earlier this year, Mecklenburg County Commissioners reacted with alarm after a school there ran up $600,000 in bank loans and unpaid bills shortly after opening.

“How effective can the oversight be if the charter school can get into so much trouble so quickly?” the Charlotte Observer quoted Commissioner Dumont Clark as asking. “What about those kids? It seems to be a terrible waste of tax dollars.”

Earlier this year, The Herald-Sun’s Greg Childress reported on PACE Academy, a troubled school whose student body was made up in part of prep basketball players from afar who enrolled there while they played for a for-profit basketball camp. State officials eventually recommended the school lose its charter.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported last year in a similar arrangement between a basketball factory and a charter school in that city. N. C. Policy Watch, which also reported on that situation, wrote:

“N.C. Policy Watch investigation found two-thirds of the players on Quality Education Academy’s basketball rosters from 2008 to present came from other states and nations to attend the K-12 school. Their educations were subsidized by taxpayers who sent $13.2 million in state, federal and local funding to the school for the same time period…”

The state charter school office, stretched thin for years, has been even more challenged by the torrent of charter schools coming on-line. 

Many local officials have suggested that school boards or county commissions should have increased oversight authority for these schools spending public money.

While many charter schools are doing a fine, even outstanding job, too many appear to face serious issues. Parents and the students whose education they entrust to those schools deserve better than what they are getting.