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Seven Things I Learned From Attending a Charter School Board Meeting

Charters are a "misallocation of resources on a nationwide political level. Opening individual academies, which are often supported by donors from the financial services/management consulting/venture capital industries, is not a scalable solution to the problems of education every single American student. Moreover, the good done by individual charter schools can be coopted by unreliable and ethically challenged operators."                                                     Ben Mathis-Lilley, Slate

I have been to hundreds of school board meetings in my life, mostly in the district where I taught for 30 years, and neighboring districts. I have attended Board meetings in Detroit, Lansing and Denver. And recently--I decided to check out the board meeting of a local charter school.

I did this because the charter in question had been (to quote Ben Mathis-Lilley) "coopted by [an] unreliable and ethically challenged operator."  This is no longer a secret, but the school operated for more than a decade before its founder and "curriculum" creator was indicted for tax fraud. Steve Ingersoll, an optometrist--the aforementioned ethically challenged operator --was charging the school $12,500/month for this so-called curriculum, Integrated Visual Learning, Ingersoll's "intellectual property," an "extension of behavioral optometry into the field of education." Two years after his indictment, he was still collecting $12,500, monthly.

And the Board was paying it, apparently unconcerned that "major organizations, including the International Orthoptic Association and the American Academy of Ophthalmology have alternatively so far concluded that there is no current validity for clinically significant improvements in vision with Behavioural Vision Therapy, therefore they do not practice it."

We used to have a name for this sort of thing: snake oil. But still--the unregulated charter school industry allows parents in Michigan to choose schools based on questionable theories, paying for them with my tax dollars. There is solid research showing that such financial mismanagement (the charter school wrote off $1.6 million spent by Ingersoll, as unpaid debt) impacts surrounding traditional public school districts, weakening their revenue streams and ability to plan programming.

It's a vastly complicated case, and the defendant, Steve Ingersoll, has yet to be sentenced. I was curious about what goes on at these Board meetings--who are the (carefully selected) board members who are making decisions for the nearly 1200 students and their families who chose Grand Traverse Academy?

I also wondered why this school attracted so many students. It's situated in a lovely, prosperous town of about 16,000 residents with a highly regarded public school system, featuring many specialized program options, including an alternative high school.  Four of the small town systems surrounding Traverse City also have high-scoring, bang-for-the-buck positive reviews. Nothing about any of these schools says "troubled urban/rural district" that families need to flee from.

Here are seven observations--from a school board meeting veteran:

  • What you see isn't always what you getGrand Traverse Academy has a beautiful, strikingly modern building (although there was discussion at the meeting about their inability to get an expansion project off the ground, due to financial irregularities). The main hallway is vaulted, featuring banners reading "Professional Work Habits," "Optimism" and--yes--"Integrity." The Board met in a modern classroom, outfitted with about three dozen up-to-date computers.

You would also think the Board would have microphones or at least be willing to speak up, so their observers could understand the buddy-buddy conversations that comprised their interaction in a public meeting. But no. It was difficult to hear and understand what the Board (and its manager) were saying. It was as if they were used to operating with no observers. The meeting also began at 1:00 p.m., not an ideal time for parents to attend.

  • There is a cottage industry for accounting and legal advice that is "charter-friendly," and "understands the charter school culture." There was discussion, early in the meeting, about the school's convoluted funding troubles--and an accountant present, to explain questions about the budget--followed by assurance to the public (by then, there were six of us, including the reporter, the superintendent, the charter authorizer and the accountant) that these issues were "in the rear view mirror" and that the state's charter organization--MAPSA--would henceforth provide them with names of lawyers and accounting firms that were (and I quote) "charter school specialists."
  • Their budget does not look like public school budgets. Again, I'm intimately familiar with public school budgets, and the typical percentage of revenue spent on instruction, the vast majority of which goes to teacher salaries and development--as opposed to administrative, support and maintenance costs, or capital improvements. This was budget day at the GTA Board meeting, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to calculate what percentage of their income went to teachers and teaching--it's less than half, but hard to be more specific than that.  It is also impossible to find teacher salaries, because GTA hires teacher through a third-party organization. A casual estimate reveals that the hard-working teachers at GTA aren't making big bucks, and GTA--like most charters--pays a far smaller percentage toward instruction than public schools. (Side note: it was also virtually impossible to read some of the budget documents because the print was so small. Saving paper, one presumes.)
  • How much charter school authorizers get for "oversight." This was was a surprise to me. Lake Superior State University, GTA's authorizing agent, gets $281,571.00 a year to "oversee" operations there. A quick look at LSSU's charter school information reveals that they have authorized 22 charter schools. Probably not all of them are as long-lasting or large as GTA, but that's a quick $5 million or more in their annual revenue stream--nothing to sneeze at.
  • What charter schools get for this authorization and oversight cost. There is plenty of evidence that Lake Superior State knew about the fiscal malfeasance--and more--going on at GTA, a school that they were paid well to monitor. But you wouldn't know it from the "LSSU Report" delivered at the Board meeting. Here is what LSSU's representative said. Verbatim: "I can notice a positive change in the school climate this year. There's a calmer, more united spirit. I noticed this in five minutes! No specifics--this is just a feeling that I have." I do not have this gentleman's name as it was not listed on the agenda; he also mentioned that he was responsible for monitoring operations, but school climate was his area of special interest. His report lasted less than two minutes.
  • What "executive administration" is--and how to hide costs in the budget. Unlike most traditional public schools, 12% of the school's budget is set aside for "executive administration:" money that goes to Lake Superior State, and to FMS, a "management company"--some $844,000 worth of management. The management company representative, Dr. Mark Noss (yes, an optometrist), ran the Board meeting, not the school superintendent. Noss was also Board president at GTA for several years, before and after Steve Ingersoll's indictment, but stepped down to run FMS.

I'm still mulling over what to make of this. When schools are unsafe or plagued by low achievement, I understand parents' desire to have options. But GTA's test scores are, at best, average--and sometimes significantly lower--compared to surrounding traditional public school.  I am thinking here about Bruce Baker's thoughts on "chartering."

 "Chartering" is a more aggressive policy intervention whereby state and local policy makers engage more directly in promoting the expansion of charter schooling by converting district schools to charters, closing district schools to pave the way for charter expansion, transferring district capital assets to charter operators, and generally dismantling the public district in order to expedite its replacement with a "portfolio" of charter operators.

What do you think? Is your school district vulnerable to chartering?

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