Is the Wake County school board looking after its interests or being a bully by joining the lawsuit against the proposed online charter school?
As noted in today's article, the issue went 5-4 along party lines with the Democrats backing the N.C. School Boards Association's request that it take part in the litigation. The Republicans voted no, questioning the propriety of the decision.
"I think it’s anti-charter school and I don’t think we belong in it," said school board member Debra Goldman, the GOP nominee for state auditor.
Here's an intro into the subject.
After State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison said at the October meeting that they wouldn't for now be considering applications for online charter schools, North Carolina Learns started looking elsewhere. N.C. Learns is the local non-profit group that's applying for the charter for the North Carolina Virtual Academy.
N.C. Learns used a rarely employed section of state law to go to a local school district instead of the state board to get initial approval. Click here to read the N.C. Virtual Academy's charter application.
The school would be run by K12 Inc., a Virginia-based for-profit company that manages online schools in 29 states and the District of Columbia. The New York Times ran this critical piece on K12 in December, prompting the company to fire back here on its blog.
In January, the Cabarrus County school board agreed to give initial approval to the school in exchange for 4 percent of the revenue. Considering that the school is projecting $18.6 million in revenue in year one and $34.5 million a year four years after that, 4 percent is a nice amount for Cabarrus.
With the initial approval in hand, N.C. Learns submitted the application to the state board for final approval. The state board didn't act on the application before a March 15 deadline for making decisions on charters that would open this year.
N.C. Learns filed a lawsuit. On May 8, state Administrative Law Judge Beecher Gray ruled on the bench that the state board had given up its jurisdiction by not deciding on the application by March 15. Gray issued a charter to the school allowing it to open in August.
Click here for Gray's ruling.
The State Board of Education appealed the ruling. A hearing will be held June 25 in Wake County Superior Court.
The N.C. School Boards Association has filed a brief in support of the appeal. The group has also been soliciting school boards to join in the litigation. Click here for the list of 60 school districts that have passed resolutions. That represents a majority of the state's 115 districts.
When it came to Wake County's turn on Tuesday, the Republican school board members objected to discussing it in closed session. But school board chairman Kevin Hill said he was following the advice of board attorney Ann Majestic to discuss the issue first in closed session.
Following the closed session, the GOP board members were still fired up.
“I find it ethically appalling for a board to intervene in the action and governance of another board and to try to usurp the authority of another government agency or board, meaning the State Board of Education," Goldman said. "I don’t think that we belong in this. I don’t think we should be sticking ourselves into it.”
In an interview Wednesday, Harrison said they welcome school boards joining in support of the appeal.
Back to Tuesday, where Goldman also said it didn't pass "the smell test" that so many groups were using the same attorney, Tharrington Smith. She equated it to the smell of a three-month-old unwashed gym uniform.
Tharrington Smith is one of the firms representing the NCSBA in the appeal and also represents a number of the individual districts who are joining the litigation. But Leanne Winner of the NCSBA, said Tharrington Smith is not, as Goldman said after the meeting, also representing Cabarrus County schools.
Board member John Tedesco also spoke out against intervening. If Tedesco goes on to win the GOP nomination for state schools superintendents and then the general election in November, he'll be right in the midst of these cases working with the state board.
“This is completely inappropriate," Tedesco said of intervening. "This is a separate local LEA with a separate democratic process to elect their local community leaders to enter into contracts on their behalf. For us to go after them in litigation in this manner is bullying in a manner that is abrasive to allow their local representatives to serve their community, first.
Second of all, and point being made for anyone who thinks it’s about this particular issue as opposed to my view on charter schools, it was myself and other members of this board several years ago who also supported charter schools, lifting the cap on our charter schools in this state, prior to the General Assembly making those changes so my opinion has been consistent for years on this matter. I just think it’s inappropriate for us as a board to intervene and enter into a lawsuit against another school district at this time.“
Technically, the complainants in the case are N.C. Learns and the State Board of Education. Cabarrus isn't a named party.
GOP board member Chris Malone could impact future charter school rules if he wins his bid for a seat in the state House.
“There’s no laws broken here," Malone said. "Everyone is playing by the rules. I’ve got some questions about some of the method and about this institution that’s running the show here, but I don’t want to be getting involved in another county’s business for the same reasons that Mr. Tedesco pointed out.”
Malone said he agrees with Goldman that this "smells."
“We shouldn’t be getting involved in another body’s business whether or not it be that school system, that school board, Cabarrus County, or whether or not it be the North Carolina School Board," Malone said. "I’ve been this way on everything having to do with resolutions and things like that, involving ourselves in other issues as well.
So it’s not necessarily having anything to do with charter schools, which of course I support as well. It has more to do about the principle of the matter and I couldn’t wholeheartedly agree more with my compatriots on this.”
GOP school board member Deborah Prickett is in the situation of working for the state Department of Public Instruction, which is administered by the state board and the state schools superintendent.
“I question why this was placed on our agenda because it looks and feels highly political," Prickett said. "I support the state board and I have the utmost respect for our state board and don’t think we should get involved with their business. I don’t think we should get involved with any sort of a local school board business.
I absolutely agree we do have a place in dealing with students in Wake County, but this going way, way out of our challenges and way out of our commitments to Wake County. I do want to reinforce the fact that I support the state board and I really do have the utmost respect for them and know that they’re working very hard to provide a quality education in the area of the virtual schools for our students in North Carolina."
For the Democrats, only board member Susan Evans spoke out in open session.
“I do think it’s appropriate for us to get involved in this situation," Evans said. "It is a Cabarrus County issue, but it affects our students and affects our funding for our school system because once students from Wake County begin to participate in this virtual school, it would have an impact on our funding.
I also have serious issues with the process and I believe that this charter school obtained their approval through an improper process that usurped the proper channels, and because of that I think it’s appropriate for us to get involved.”
Improper is strong as it is allowed under state law to go through a local school district for approval. It's just rare.
According to state education officials, only two charter schools, dating back to the infancy of the program in 1997, are believed to have gone through a local district for initial approval. One of those schools was Exploris Middle School. But both went on to also get state board approval too.
Winner said the N.C. Virtual Academy could become the only charter school to open without the approval of the state board. That's why the state Office of Charter Schools recently informed Cabarrus that the school district would be responsible for overseeing the school if it opens.
Both Winner, the director of governmental affairs for NCSBA, and Harrison said it's in the interests of local school districts like Wake to be involved in the lawsuit.
"The charter school will affect not just the Cabarrus school system," Winner said. "This could affect the Wake County school system."