A lobbying and advocacy group was gutted of its staff last week, after former state Sen. Eddie Goodall split away from the N.C Alliance for Public Charter Schools to create his own charter school association.
Goodall said he left after becoming concerned about conflicts of interest several board members had with a new state committee on charter schools. He plans to form a new group called the North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association, which Goodall said will focus more on existing schools.
The conflicts may go beyond that — three of the alliance board members also have financial interests in public charter schools and run companies that could stand to benefit from the expanding role the publicly-funded charter schools will have in the state.
The split became public last Friday when Goodall, who had been the public face of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, sent out an email announcing that he was leaving the pro-charter organization because “much of the direction from the board leadership was at odds with the fundamental principles behind charter school education success in North Carolina.”
The alliance put up their version of the split here, saying it was part of a plan to restructure the group.
The defection of Goodall and three other staff members left no remaining staff with the alliance, which had been a strong force in this year’s debate over expanding the role of charter schools in the state’s public education system.
A 100-school cap on charter schools was lifted, while proposed legislation to expand funding streams to charter schools were scaled back after opponents raised concerns traditional public schools would be defunding and could lead to increased privatization of public education in the state.
The concern about conflicts of interest is what Goodall said made him quit – Paul Norcross, the current board chair of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools, also serves on a new advisory committee for charter schools at the state.
Norcross would not comment directly about whether he knew about Goodall’s concerns, saying personnel laws prevented him from talking about it.
He said that the alliance, now without staff, will have a presence in cities around the state, and hopes to better serve schools by decentralizing.
“This is a statewide organization,” Norcross said. “You can’t do it sitting on a perch in Raleigh.”
The N.C. Public Charter School Advisory Council, created by the state legislature this summer, will act in an advisory role to the N.C. State Board of Education and is responsible for developing policies affecting charter schools, reviewing the performance of individual schools and making decisions about charter schools’ compliance with state education rules.
Norcross could find himself in a position where the interests of the alliance members may be at odds with his role as a committee member, Goodall said.
“It took us a little too far away from the independence I think an organization purporting to represent charter schools should have,” Goodall said. “The two bodies ought to be separate and distinct.”
Norcross also has business interests that could conflict with his role on the state committee, though Norcross says no conflict exists.
Norcross was a founder of the charter school Phoenix Academy in High Point, where his wife now serves as the high school superintendent. He’s a proposed board member of the Mendenhall County Day School, a charter school hoping to open next fall in Guilford County if it gets a blessing from the N.C. State Board of Education. (The N.C. State Board of Education is supposed to make a decision early next year about whether Mendenhall, and 10 other proposed charter schools, will open up for the next school year.)
To run that school, Norcross and his wife set up a company called Phoenix Systems, Inc., that would contract with the Mendenhall charter school to manage it, according to a copy of the school’s charter application filed with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Norcross said the financial particulars of the arrangement between the school and the education management company haven’t been finalized.
The 79-page Mendenhall application says the company run by the Norcrosses would provide “School Management expertise and experience that will make our school the tremendous success that it is destined to become in the same way that they started and operate Phoenix Academy in High Point.”
But whether or not taxpayers get a fair price for the services isn’t guaranteed — North Carolina law does not require public charter schools to follow the state’s strict purchasing laws, which require public organizations to seek bids for services and select the lowest bids.
More members with business interests
Norcross doesn’t appear to be the only board member of the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools that could profit from the increased presence of the schools in North Carolina.
Last week, the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools added two new board members — Baker Mitchell of Leland and David Faunce of Rutherfordton – both of whom run companies that contract with charter schools in the state. The men had also been early leaders in the charter school movement in the state, and helped found schools in their communities.
Mitchell serves along with Norcross on the state advisory committee, and owns a company called “The Roger Bacon Academy” that is contracted to run two public charter schools in Brunswick County – the Charter Day School and Columbus Charter School, according to records at the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office and tax returns for the schools.
Just how much money is Mitchell taking in? Quite a bit.
In the 2009-10 fiscal year, Mitchell received more than $3 million from the two charter schools for management fees and the cost of renting the buildings from another company Mitchell owns, according to publicly available copies of the charter school’s tax returns, called an I-990.
The schools received $7.7 million in state and local funding and had total revenues of $8.5 million, according to the non-profit’s tax return.
Faunce, a longtime charter school board member of the Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in Rutherford County, is one of the owners of Acadia Northstar, an accounting firm with offices in Raleigh and Rutherfordton that does business with a large bulk of charter schools in the state.
Faunce estimated, in an April interview with N.C. Policy Watch, that he has contracts with 80 out of the 99 existing charter schools in the state.
The state doesn’t track how much public funds flow through to Faunce’s company, as we found out in April when we wrote about Faunce’s business ties to the public charter school industry in the state in this post.
Norcross says no conflicts exist
Norcross, the chair of the group Goodall recently left, maintained that Goodall’s departure was part of a long-term plan to restructure the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
“We’ve had our strategic plan on going forward,” Norcross said. “That’s really been the plan.”
Norcross also said he didn’t see any conflict between running an education management organization, serving on a state advisory committee for charter schools and being a board chair for a charter school organization. He abstains from voting on any issues that affect the schools he runs, and has been upfront with his different roles, he said.
If there was a conflict, someone would have already mentioned it, he said.
“The legislature appointed me and the governor didn’t complain when I was appointed,” Norcross said. “If anyone would have thought it would have been inappropriate, they wouldn’t have asked me to serve.”