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Despite concerns, divided State Board of Education approves controversial operator for Innovative School District

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey

A divided State Board of Education approved a controversial operator in the Innovative School District Thursday, despite concerns about the contractor’s limited experience and perceived conflicts of interest.

The vote clears the way for a contract with the Forest City-based nonprofit, Achievement for All Children (AAC), which formed last year under the leadership of influential school choice advocates in North Carolina.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall recommended the group over one other applicant, Michigan-headquartered The Romine Group, following a third-party evaluation and meetings with locals in the Robeson County community where the school—Southside-Ashpole Elementary—is located.

AAC’s leadership includes CEO Tony Helton, a former state board adviser and leader in the TeamCFA charter network. And its board of directors includes ex-state Rep. Rob Bryan, a former Charlotte lawmaker who co-sponsored the legislation two years ago to create the program.

The district will allow private organizations like AAC to take over management in up to five public schools, chosen because of poor academic marks. [Update: The Innovative School District will hire and manage teachers and support staff, while AAC would select the school’s leader or principal].

“I am encouraged to see the ISD get to this important next stage where what was only an idea just a short while ago is now developing into a genuinely innovative approach to improving conditions in low-performing schools,” state board Chair Bill Cobey said in a statement, issued shortly after Thursday’s contentious vote.

State Board of Education member Tricia Willoughby

The panel voted 7-4 to approve, with members Tricia Willoughby, Eric Davis, Becky Taylor and Wayne McDevitt in opposition.

Multiple board members challenged the recommended operator this week, pointing to a critical review of AAC by a state-named consultant. That review called into question whether the new nonprofit had the experience or the plan to turn around Southside-Ashpole, although the nonprofit still beat out a similarly tepid review of The Romine Group.

State officials say they hope to attract more interested operators when they choose two to three new schools later this year for the takeover program, which was a favorite of mostly conservative school choice boosters in the N.C. General Assembly.

“I still have a lot of concerns about assuring that we do the right thing here,” McDevitt said during Wednesday’s lengthy debate. “I’m not there.”

Davis, who was voted in as the board’s new vice chair Thursday, offered his own biting criticism this week.

“I think (students) deserve better,” said Davis. “They deserve an operator with a demonstrated track record.”

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

Critics of the Innovative School District also questioned the deep ties between AAC and the school choice movement in the state. In addition to contracting with the state legislator, Rob Bryan, who helped to legalize the takeover model, some also noted the connection between AAC and John Bryan (no relation to Rob Bryan), an Oregon, school choice advocate who lobbied for the program in recent years.

The nonprofit plans to partner with TeamCFA, a charter network John Bryan founded, in managing the school, which serves primarily students of color in a rural, poverty-stricken county.

TeamCFA runs 13 schools in North Carolina. And some state board members pointed to their “mixed” academic results as more reason for concern.

State officials said that Hall will now look to work with AAC in choosing a leader or principal for the school, as well as a “proven curriculum.”

“It’s been an arduous process to get to this point; that was intentional,” Hall said in a statement. “We had to make very sure that we had the right fit for the school, students and community. That is critical to our success.”

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