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Attorney General Roy Cooper files suit against eastern North Carolina charter

604-chartN.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper has filed suit against an eastern North Carolina charter school, contending that leaders of the now-closed Kinston school mismanaged public funds.

Cooper’s office released the details of their complaint against Kinston Charter Academy Tuesday, which named the school, CEO Ozie L. Hall and the school’s board chairwoman, Demyra McDonald-Hall, as defendants.

“Charter schools receive taxpayer dollars to educate students and they have a duty to spend them wisely,” Cooper said in a statement. “There are many excellent charter schools but North Carolina needs more tools to protect families who choose charter schools.”

From Cooper’s statement:

Currently state law fails to adequately provide how North Carolina can fully recover taxpayer dollars from charter schools that fail or become insolvent.  Legislators should put safeguards in place to protect public education resources, Cooper said.

The complaint filed today in Wake County Superior Court alleges violations of North Carolina laws on deceptive trade practices, non-profit management and false claims. Cooper is asking the court to freeze the defendants’ assets and order them to repay misspent state funds as well as pay damages and civil penalties.

As alleged in the complaint, Hall and McDonald-Hall:

  • Falsely inflated the number of students Kinston Charter Academy would enroll so they could get more tax dollars, even though they knew the school would not be able to stay open for the 2013-2014 term.
  • Failed to disclose the school’s problems to students and their families, recruiting new students to enroll in the school while on the verge of closing it.
  • Took out risky loans with exorbitant fees and interest rates, borrowing $170,000 for less than two months at a cost of $60,000 which put the school in worse shape financially.
  • Used public money intended for educational purposes to enrich themselves and their family.

A January, 2015 report released by the State Auditor revealed many of the financial improprieties alleged in the lawsuit, including more than $11,000 in payments made to the defendants for unused vacation time and unspecified reimbursements and $2,500 to a daughter for a website that didn’t work—all while Kinston Charter Academy owed $370,825 for teacher salaries, insurance, retirement and other payroll obligations.

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State Board of Education approves limits on out-of-state charter leaders

604-chartMembers of the State Board of Education on Thursday approved a new policy limiting out-of-state membership and officers on charter school boards.

The new policy will require that a majority of the board members and at least 50 percent of board officers for charter schools be North Carolina residents. 

The board’s unanimous vote comes after N.C. Policy Watch reported in February that some state education leaders believed an earlier draft of the policy, which said nothing of board officers, did not go far enough.

“These are taxpayer funds. I believe they should be safeguarded,” board Chairman Bill Cobey told Policy Watch.

Although state staff do not keep data on the number of out-of-state leaders in North Carolina’s growing roster of charters, multiple officials acknowledged that some of the state’s largest charter schools operate with board members and officers who are not living in North Carolina.

Critics questioned how out-of-state residents could lead education in a community in which they did not live. However, the policy approved this week may be a disappointment to some who argued that the state should bar any out-of-state officers for North Carolina charters.

“Think about how local school boards operate,” Yevonne Brannon, of the nonprofit advocacy group Public Schools First N.C. , told Policy Watch.

“They’re from the community. They represent the district. They have an understanding of the community and the kids. There are layers and layers of accountability here for how we fund the schools. If we’re going to have a charter school that’s set up by parents to serve a need in the community, that control should rest with the people who care about the community.”

Last year, lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly approved legislation mandating conflict of interest and nepotism policies for charter school leadership, but the bill left the door open to out-of-state board members and officers.

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North Carolina public schools are seeking charter-like flexibility

preschoolLast week, at the Public School Forum of N.C.’s panel on low-performing schools, we heard from multiple principals who espoused the value of charter-like flexibility for their struggling schools.

“If one person speeds, I don’t think we all deserve a ticket,” said Kristy Thomas, principal at Rock Rest Elementary in Union County, arguing that burdensome restrictions for such schools could only slow their progress.

Not coincidentally, a new policy approved by the N.C. State Board of Education this year would allow certain low-performing schools to adopt some charter powers, such as amending the calendar year to cut days from the summer break. Educators frequently bemoan the loss of instructional progress over lengthy summer breaks.

Now, this from The News & Observer this weekend:

The Wake County school board gave permission last week for staff to request charter-like flexibility for Barwell Road and Walnut Creek elementary schools for the 2016-17 school year.

If the state board approves the request, Barwell and Walnut Creek could see changes such as more days in the school calendar. Wake may also be able to change the way it staffs both schools, including how teachers are paid.

“When you have flexibility in how you staff and the instructional program, you have the potential to do some creative things that you were not able to do before because of state law,” said Marvin Connelly, the Wake school system’s chief of staff and strategic planning.

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Withdrawals in North Carolina’s virtual charters continue to soar

Virtual charter schoolsIn January, we reported on the staggeringly high withdrawal rates in the pilot program for North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools.

An updated report, which is scheduled to be presented to the N.C. State Board of Education Wednesday afternoon, isn’t likely to assuage those concerns.

State staff were expected to explain to board members Wednesday how the publicly-funded virtual schools saw withdrawals only worsen in the last two months.

According to their report, N.C. Connections Academy, owned by the British multinational corporation Pearson PLC, counted a total of 505 students dropped out of the online school program in the first five months, or more than 25 percent of total enrollments in the school during that time period.

And Virtual Academy, managed by the controversial Virginia-based company K-12, Inc., saw 497 withdrawals in the first five months, meaning about 26 percent of their enrollments dropped out of the program.

Both withdrawal rates represent increases on the first three months at Connections Academy and Virtual Academy, which were logged at about 20 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

K-12 Inc.’s virtual programs have been a source of controversy across the country, particularly in states like California and Tennessee where residents lambasted the poor testing results for virtual school students.

A Stanford University study last fall showed students at virtual charters nationwide lagging far behind public school students in reading and math.

Supporters of virtual charter programs say they can be a means of transformation for students who struggle in traditional public school programs.

They have also responded to the high dropout rates in the early months by pointing out that virtual programs nationwide typically experience high numbers of withdrawals in their first months.

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Three students file court challenge to an eastern N.C. charter’s policy requiring that girls wear skirts

charterschools-300x202Three students at a Brunswick County charter school are challenging the school’s policy requiring that girls wear skirts, the ACLU of N.C. said today.

The ACLU and Raleigh firm Ellis & Winters LLP filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of N.C. Monday on behalf of three students—ages 5, 10 and 14—at Charter Day School in Leland, which is just north of Wilmington.

In the suit, the ACLU explains that the K-8 public charter school, which serves more than 900 students, also bans girls from wearing shorts or pants under its dress code. Violating the policy can result in “discipline or even expulsion,” the ACLU said.

In the lawsuit, which you can read here, the girls say “wearing skirts restricts their movement, inhibits them in school situations such as playing at recess or sitting on the floor, and causes them to feel uncomfortably cold in the winter.”

From the ACLU statement:

“There are a lot of situations – whether it’s playing outside, sitting on the floor, or trying to stay warm in the cold – where wearing a skirt makes my daughter uncomfortable and distracts her from learning,” said Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a 5-year-old Charter Day School student who is a client in the case. “I’m not against a dress code, but it’s 2016. Girls should be allowed to wear pants as part of the dress code. As a parent, nothing is more important to me than my children, and I don’t want an outdated policy to get in the way of their education.”

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