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In case you missed the news earlier this month, Salon highlighted a new report out by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education that examines 15 states representing large charter school markets — and found instances of fraud, waste and abuse at charters totaling $100 million in taxpayer funds.

From Salon:

Perhaps most disturbingly, under the first category, crooked charter school officials displayed a wide range of lavish, compulsive or tawdry tastes. Examples include:

• Joel Pourier, former CEO of Oh Day Aki Heart Charter School in Minnesota, who embezzled $1.38 million from 2003 to 2008. He used the money on houses, cars, and trips to strip clubs. Meanwhile, according to an article in the Star Tribune, the school “lacked funds for field trips, supplies, computers and textbooks.”

• Nicholas Trombetta, founder of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is accused of diverting funds from it for his private purchases. He allegedly bought houses, a Florida Condominium and a $300,000 plane, hid income from the IRS, formed businesses that billed even though they had done no work, and took $550,000 in kickbacks for a laptop computer contract.

• A regular financial audit in 2009 of the Langston Hughes Academy in New Orleans uncovered theft of $660,000 by Kelly Thompson, the school’s business manager. Thompson admitted that from shortly after she assumed the position until she was fired 15 months later, she diverted funds to herself in order to support her gambling in local casinos.

Others spent their stolen money on everything from a pair of jet skis for $18,000 to combined receipts of $228 for cigarettes and beer, to over $30,000 on personal items from Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Louis Vuitton, Coach and Tommy Hilfiger. But the real damage came from the theft of resources for children’s future.

The end goal of the report, say its authors, is to warn the public about the increasing risk that communities and taxpayers face by having an inadequately regulated charter industry.

Despite rapid growth in the charter school industry, no agency, federal or state, has been given the resources to properly oversee [charter schools]. Given this inadequate oversight,we worry that the fraud and mismanagement that has been uncovered thus far might be just the tip of the iceberg.
Read the full report here.

lw-410In North Carolina, many have criticized the review process for charter school applications, pointing out the subjective metrics for determining which applications move forward and the lack of a process for an applicant to appeal their application’s denial.

This week, lawmakers introduced draft legislation contained in a committee report recommending ways to improve the charter school application review process.

If enacted, the law would require the following:

  • For the initial review of a charter school application by a Charter School Advisory Board subcommittee: written decisions for an initial recommendation to move forward or a denial, which must include specific factual support and be transmitted to the applicant.
  • Appeal process: applicants would be allowed to appeal an initial denial with supplemental written information. (No appeal process currently exists.)
  • Final recommendation for approval or denial: must be backed up with factual support
  • Final appeal: applicant would be able to make a final appeal to the State Board of Education with written information and petition the State Board for a hearing.

In addition to clarifying the application review process, the law also emphasizes that the State Board of Education must engage in a rules making process with regard to all aspects of charter school operation, including standards, criteria for acceptance, monitoring, etc. While that requirement to engage in rules making has been on the books for some time, it hasn’t formally happened yet.

The law would also increase charter school application fees to $1,000 – the current fee is $500 – and require the State Board to make final decisions on applications no later than June 15.

Finally, the law makes clear that public charter schools must do the same thing that traditional public schools are required to do – and that’s comply with the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Law.

In the past, some charter school operators objected to disclosing employee salaries – but if they do that going forward, they’d be breaking the law.

Stay tuned to see how the draft legislation ends up during the next legislative session, which — can you believe it — starts this coming Wednesday, May 14!

Get some rest this weekend, political junkies.

Members of the State Board of Education called a brief session today to consider a proposal that would allow 2015 charter school applicants who didn’t make it to the interview stage of the application process a second chance at opening a charter school in the fall of 2015.

Becky Taylor, State Board of Ed member and Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) member, explained to fellow State Board members that out of 63 applicants wishing to open charter schools in Fall 2015, 42 were not invited to the interview stage of the application process.

Despite the low number of charter school applications moving forward, Taylor insisted repeatedly that the process the Charter School Advisory Board used to evaluate applications was exhaustive and thorough.

Nonetheless, Taylor said CSAB heard complaints from some applicants who said that when they sat through a subcommittee’s review of their applications, issues arose that could have been clarified had they been allowed to interject. The review process currently does not allow charter school applicants to interact with CSAB members until they reach the interview stage, although they are allowed to witness the review in person.

Office of Charter Schools staff member Zane Stillwell worked up a proposal to allow any of the 42 charter school applicants who were denied interviews a chance to petition the CSAB for a second chance.

By May 2, applicants must submit a petition to the CSAB outlining their reasons for reconsideration, which should only pertain to issues that came up during the initial review. No new information can be considered, according to Taylor.

State Board members approved the proposal. Decisions regarding who gets an interview will be made by May 20, and the additional interviews will be conducted no later than July 1.

A Winston-Salem public charter school is continuing its efforts to bring in elite basketball players from around the nation and world, and recently saw three of its out-of-state players recruited to play next year at Division 1 colleges.

All three of the players who signed collegiate letters of intent came from outside North Carolina to attend Quality Education Academy, a charter school that is part of the state’s growing system of schools that are privately run by non-profit boards but funded with local, state and federal education dollars.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Office of Charter Schools, which monitors the 127 charter schools in the state, has previously raised concerns about QEA’s controversial basketball program, but neither DPI nor the N.C. Board of Education have taken any significant steps to curtail or stop the out-of-state recruitment. The school and it basketball team were the subjects of an N.C. Policy Watch investigation last year (scroll down to read more about that report).

June Atkinson, a Democrat elected to head the state’s K-12 public education system, said last year that charter schools have to accept students from North Carolina but the laws governing charter schools are silent as to whether that means the school is open to only North Carolina residents.

Meanwhile, the  basketball program’s efforts to look outside North Carolina don’t appear to be slowing.

Isaac Pitts, the basketball coach for Quality Education Academy, recently referred to his ongoing efforts to pull in players from overseas on his  Instagram account.

“Evaluating overseas talent and liking what I see! Wow,” Pitts wrote on March 28 as a caption to a screenshot of several youth playing on an outdoor basketball court.

QEAoverseas

QEA basketball coach Isaac Pitts comments via Instagram on overseas recruiting efforts.

In another photo of what appears to be the same video, Pitts wrote, “Just sitting here looking at game film of kids we’re interested in.”

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The Charlotte Observer hits the nail on the head with this editorial on the latest controversy surrounding North Carolina’s supposedly public charter schools:

“It’s disappointing that officials of some N.C. charter schools are trying to evade full disclosure of who gets paid what at the schools. Charters are ‘public’ schools and should be subject to the same transparency requirements as all other public schools. Read More