On eve of vote, State Board of Education divided on contract with controversial school takeover operator

A former state lawmaker, Rob Bryan, is part of a private group hoping to win a contract in the program he helped to legalize.

On the eve of a crucial vote, the State Board of Education is clearly split on a recommendation to approve a prospective operator for the Innovative School District that’s troubled by claims of ethical conflicts and myriad questions about their curriculum and limited track record.

Board members are expected to vote Thursday morning on a contract with Achievement for All Children (AAC), a Charlotte-based nonprofit that hopes to take over operations and staffing in a beleaguered Robeson County elementary this year.

Yet Wednesday’s lengthy debate—which often centered on a particularly lukewarm, third-party assessment of the one-year-old group—left little clarity on where the state panel would ultimately come down on the issue of who will ultimately pilot Southside-Ashpole Elementary.

The board fielded just two applications for the program’s first year, and neither group earned stellar marks. Some have suggested the panel should re-open the application process.

“I for one believe that we’re at a point where we can take a calculated risk and go forward with [this] recommendation,” said board Chairman Bill Cobey. “I’m willing to stick my neck out on that.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican school choice advocate who sits on the board, said the state needs new ideas for some long-struggling public schools. “We’re looking at one opportunity to do something innovative,” said Forest. “I don’t think we should be scared of that.”

Others, however, questioned how the board could go along with the recommendation for a group that had “met expectations” on just four of 11 sections of the state’s independent assessment of their capabilities.

State Board of Education member Eric Davis

“The children of this school need our best,” said board member Eric Davis. “Not four out of 11, they need better than that.”

As Policy Watch detailed today, the contract is laden with concerns about AAC’s deep ties to the state legislature and influential school choice advocates. Indeed, ex-state legislator Rob Bryan, who co-sponsored the bill creating the program two years ago, is on the organization’s board of directors.

The group is also facing criticism that it formed just last year, when state law calls for an operator with a “record of results” or has a contractual affiliation with an organization with a track record.

AAC has inked a contract to work with TeamCFA, a charter school chain with 13 schools in North Carolina, but state officials have acknowledged the chain’s “mixed” results in other schools.

“I don’t know that we can afford an operator with mixed results,” Jason Griffin, North Carolina’s Principal of the Year and an adviser to the state board, said Wednesday.

Nevertheless, Innovative School District Superintendent Eric Hall, who recommended AAC for the job last month, says the nonprofit emerged from a “rigorous” process and evaluation by Massachusetts-based School Works as the best fit. He complimented AAC’s plan for “competitive” teacher salaries and its responsiveness to state concerns during the process.

“That’s what you want from a good partner, someone that is going to step forward and respond to things when you need it,” said Hall.

Hall also emphasized that the law allows for annual reviews of the operator’s progress.

State Board of Education member Amy White

Board member Amy White said these “checks and balances” convinced her to support Hall’s recommendation.

“There has to be a first for somebody, and there has to be a first school,” White said.

Others, like board member Wayne McDevitt, were not convinced. “I still have a lot of concerns about assuring that we do the right thing here,” McDevitt said. “I’m not there. We’ve got to be very, very sure that we’re coming out of the blocks right.”

Davis said he “couldn’t get comfortable” with the AAC recommendation based on the gaps in its evaluation.

“I’m all for giving someone the first chance,” he said. “But I’m not all for risking the education of over 300 students just to give some adults the first chance. I think (the students) deserve better. They deserve an operator with a proven track record.”

Thursday’s state board meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the seventh floor of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction building in Raleigh. Find audio streaming of the meeting here.

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On eve of vote, State Board of Education divided on contract with controversial school takeover operator