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State budget phases out controversial Innovative School District

Nancy McCormick is in her first year as a kindergarten teacher at Southside Ashpole and is pictured in her classroom. (Photo by Greg Childress)

The state budget signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper on Thursday phases out the controversial Innovative School District (ISD) created by Republican lawmakers to turn around some of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

The experimental school district will continue to operate Southside-Ashpole Elementary School in Rowland, the lone school in the ISD, until the State Board of Education “adopts and executes” a transition plan to return the school to Robeson County Schools.

“But in no case shall the North Carolina Innovative School District operate Southside-Ashpole Elementary School after the completion of the 2022-2023 school year,” the budget bill states.

Policy Watch reported in July that a provision in the state Senate’s budget proposal called for the state to “Transition from the Innovative School District Model” and end plans to select additional schools for the district.

The state program was created by lawmakers in 2016 to allow outside operators, including for-profits and charter management groups, to take over a traditional public school for five years.

Former state lawmakers Rob Bryan and Chad Barefoot were the primary sponsors of the ISD legislation. It was modeled after the Achievement School District in Tennessee. The program ultimately didn’t work in Tennessee, which announced a major reset in early 2020 due to persistently low test scores and enrollment.

In an interview with Policy Watch in July, Bryan acknowledged that the district hasn’t worked well.

“You have to shake up things to try to get kids into an environment where they can be more successful,” Bryan said. “Just the pressure of it [ISD) makes the public ask; ‘How are we serving these kids’ and can we do a better job to make them not want to do this program and not want to take one of our schools?”

Critics contend such districts lack transparency and that it’s more difficult to monitor them because public money and decision-making authority are transferred to operators that are not directly accountable to taxpayers.

The ISD experiment has been expensive. The state has spent nearly $5 million on district administration since the 2016-17 school year. That includes money for the superintendent’s salary, as well as travel and administrative positions – all to oversee a single school.

Achievement for All Children (AAC), a for-profit charter operator selected to manage Southside Ashpole under a $100,000 a year contract and the NC Department of Public Instruction parted ways in the fall of 2020 because AAC was not able to provide students with the remote learning they needed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ISD’s relationship with AAC had been rocky. A confidential letter obtained by Policy Watch in the summer of 2020 revealed an ongoing feud between the ISD and AAC, which was under the leadership of former State Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Democrat from Charlotte.

The unsigned letter recommended that the state board terminate the contract with AAC three years early and cited numerous instances in which the firm allegedly failed to meet deadlines for reports that were contractually mandated. AAC reportedly failed to submit a proposed budget due May 1, 2019 and an annual financial audit that was due Oct. 15, 2019. Nor, says the letter, did AAC submit a compliance report for the district’s Exceptional Children’s Program or make requested corrections to COVID-19 staff work logs. 

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