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Holding Charter School Boards Accountable

By Allie Gross

Cesar Chavez Academy’s appointed board cancelled their October, November and December board meetings due to a lack of quorum. These postponed meetings raise questions about accountability. When the board finally met Jan. 9, the Board Vice President Lawrence Garcia addressed concerns over the cancelled meetings explaining the meetings “did not take place but that’s really not all that unusual and certainly nothing sinister.” This blasé response was not an apology but rather, if true, an acknowledgment of a dismal status quo that the CCA board is content maintaining.

Realizing the board would not be taking responsibility for the cancelled meetings, I decided to speak with the sole body responsible for the board: Saginaw Valley State University, CCA’s authorizer. I was curious to see if/how SVSU was holding the board accountable. Even the most ardent charter supports insist authorizers must be at the front line of accountability for their schools.

Although Joseph Rousseau, the Director of the SVSU School Partnership Program, expressed disappointment, he was quick to push the culpability away from the current board members and instead focus on the difficulties in finding standup board members in general.

“We do know Cesar Chavez is not alone in sometimes having a hard time getting a quorum.  If you move back from that a step, you know, I have to tell you it’s difficult for most of our charters to get board members. Period. Much less people with some experience serving on a board and some understanding of what their responsibilities are,” Rousseau said.

One solution to these issues, which Rousseau sounded excited about, is a new program the Detroit Chamber of Commerce (DCC) announced recently in conjunction with Excellent Schools Detroit. The DCC is creating a committee to identify and vet potential board members in Detroit and will then share those names with authorizers and charter schools to help them select quality board members.

While it is necessary to elevate the status quo, I wonder why our schools are placing this responsibility in the hands of the DCC. Why would the DCC know best what our children need in schools? Shouldn’t that fall to parents, educators and other community leaders — the type of people that the electorate would select?  That charter boards would be stocked by the first choices of those closest to the Detroit business sector seems at odds with the hope that school boards represent the best interests of the community’s children. This is particularly the case since Detroit charters are predominantly managed by for-profit corporations.

When charter schools began in Michigan in the early 90s, the idea was to create a portfolio model where families could choose from a plethora of different schools that would fit individual needs.  Today, Detroit has roughly 97 school districts (including DPS, EAA and charters), and while one would expect these to look really different, the truth is the operation of charters in the city has become increasingly concentrated into the hands of just a few management companies, most notably: National Heritage Academies, the Leona Group, New Paradigm, New Urban Learning, and Detroit 90/90. Detroit has one of the most fragmented systems of schools in the nation; however, the actual gradation of options is quite limited.

If the DCC’s “Detroit Board Fellowship” program gains traction, we can expect even fewer distinctions. While charters have been held up as an alternative to DPS, what we are truly seeing is just a new, centralized collection of districts that will have many of the same board members and management companies underlying them. One notable difference is that instead of being voted into the position, these board members will be vetted behind closed doors. The “Detroit Board Fellowship” program is the perfect example of the ballooning private-sector governance of publicly funded but privately profitable schools, with little or no public accountability.

While I hope we do not accept the current status quo — as CCA and SVSU have — I do hope we can find alternatives for our schools that include more open and transparent decision-making when it comes to choosing effective board members and leaders. Having the school community a part of this process would be a decent place to start. Maybe if we held our board members accountable from the get-go, we wouldn’t be running into these issues down the line.

Allie Gross is a Detroit-based educator, investigative journalist and researcher working to make charter schools more transparent with the forthcoming website detroitcharterdata.org Contact her at allison.elisabeth@gmail.com.

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