Following angry backlash in Robeson County, potential applicants for Innovative School District have second thoughts

With local opposition in Robeson County mounting to North Carolina’s controversial Innovative School District, one potential applicant for a state contract in the charter takeover program is backing out and another may soon follow.

According to records obtained by Policy Watch, Communities in Schools (CIS) of Robeson County—a local affiliate of a state and national dropout prevention program—notified state leaders Oct. 13 that they would not be applying for a contract in the charter takeover program after all.

Meanwhile, the leader of a second organization that signaled its intent to apply for the ISD is also having second thoughts. In an Oct. 25 email to ISD Superintendent Eric Hall, Alexis Franco, director of Raleigh-based Achieve Educational Partners LLC, questioned why the state was seeking an outside party to assume control at Southside-Ashpole Elementary in Robeson.

CIS of Robeson’s notice arrived the same day that ISD Superintendent Eric Hall tapped a Robeson elementary school for the district, which would allow a private charter management organization—including, possibly, a for-profit company—to wrest control of the struggling school from local school board members.

The organization, which provides programming in 17 Robeson schools and operates a local charter, notified state officials of its decision one day after a Policy Watch report detailed professional ties between Hall and at least two ISD applicants, including CIS of Robeson.

That report prompted questions about whether Hall, who will make a recommendation on the ISD contract to the State Board of Education, could be objective in the matter, although Hall said he does not believe his work experience with the organizations should be deemed a conflict.

But CIS of Robeson County Executive Director Dencie Lambdin said Monday that the organization’s decision to withdraw was prompted by the scathing reaction to a prospective charter takeover in the eastern North Carolina school district, which has been battered by storm damage in recent years.

“I think the fact that there was such strong feeling in opposition to the Innovative School District coming from our county leadership, we felt it was in the best interest of the relationship that we had to step away from that,” said Lambdin. “My board didn’t want to jeopardize the relationship that we’ve worked so long and hard to build.”

CIS of Robeson initially wrote in its August notice of intent to apply for the ISD that it hoped to win a state contract if Hall chose a school in Robeson County. It was one of eight organizations, including Achieve Educational Partners, to file a notice before the state’s Aug. 11 deadline.

Groups have until Nov. 17 to file a formal application for the district. The State Board of Education is expected to award the contract in early 2018 at Hall’s recommendation, following a third-party review of applicants.

The pool is also expected to include a group of influential charter advocates—as well as a former state lawmaker who spearheaded the ISD’s creation last year—calling themselves Achievement for All Children.

Other applicants include AMIKids Inc., The Romine Group, Phalen Leadership Academies, Learning Sciences International LLC, Global Education Resources, OmniVest LLC, and PlusUltre LLC.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall

Franco told Policy Watch this week that she’s “on the fence” when it comes to following through on an application for Achieve Educational Partners, the for-profit consulting firm she founded to work primarily with charters. According to its site, the company has served schools in 15 North Carolina counties and eight Florida counties.

“Because you and your team plan on having a presence and being hands-on in this process, would it be more effective long term to do this in house?” Franco wrote in an email to Hall. “Bring on additional team members with successful charter experience to then guide the transformation. This team can then build a process where they can then roll into additional schools seamlessly. The idea of this team being part of the ISD and state rather than ‘the school being handed off to a CMO’ may also allow schools to be open to accepting the support.”

Franco also questioned the long-term strategy of the state’s takeover district, which would ink five-year contracts with companies with the option to extend further.

She said she believes an organization could work for five years to boost test scores in the school, only to see its work undone once control is returned to local leaders.

“We’re not looking for a quick turnaround,” said Franco. “We’re looking for sustainability.”

The takeover district was approved by state lawmakers last year who said the program would bring much-needed change to long-struggling public schools, the lion’s share of which are located in high-poverty neighborhoods and serve a disproportionate share of minority children.

But critics argued the district was little more than a privatization scheme backed by wealthy school choice boosters. They also pointed to lackluster results from similar charter takeover programs in states like Tennessee, Louisiana and Michigan.

Traditional school leaders across North Carolina have advocated for charter-like flexibility in struggling schools, a key component of the state’s growing “Restart” program, but have been resistant to the ISD mandate that they cede control of all operations and hiring to private charter management organizations.

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