September 14, 2011; The Oregonian | Nearly two years after receiving charter school designation, after two $225,000 federal grants for start-up, and just three days before it was to open its doors, the REAL Prep Charter Academy was shut down by the Portland Public School District. The speed of REAL’s demise has led public officials, community members, and prospective students scrambling to address fallout.
REAL was the primary project of “Freedom thru Freestyle”, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a vision to create a hip-hop heavy arts-based high school where recording industry professionals would offer hands-on instruction in music production and promotion under the guidance of certified teachers. When the charter was first approved, founder Erica Jayasuriya said “What happened here is proof that good working relationships are what make positive change in our community.”
“Good working relationships” don’t ensure timely communication in what’s admittedly a convoluted oversight structure. Presumably to protect nascent charter schools from being smothered in bureaucracy, the U.S. Department of Education requires states making grants with federal Charter School Program funds to “ensure each charter school has a high degree of autonomy over the charter school’s budget and expenditures.” The state relies on local school districts to otherwise monitor implementation progress. According to Portland School District officials, REAL leaders communicated frequently and demonstrated evidence of progress until mid-August, when they requested a time extension to address delays in enrollment, training, hiring and renovations.
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The first public signs of trouble also appeared in August, when Jayasuriya resigned from the Board and her paid position as school director. It soon emerged that the Board had shrunk from seven to three members; former Board president Eric Ensley cited budget and conflict of interest issues as his reason for resigning. In early September, internal dissent among remaining Board and staff erupted at Portland School district headquarters. This spurred more intensive monitoring, and district officials concluded the school wasn’t fit to open. The building was still a construction zone, curriculum was incomplete, key instructional materials and equipment were lacking, and enrollment was far below projections. The budget status remains unclear.
There’s no evidence of fraud by REAL to date. But there’s definitely evidence of a weak governing structure that didn’t address its conflicts or manage its resources. While it may in fact be good policy to safeguard operational autonomy for public innovation initiatives, there should be more ongoing attention to whether basic good governance functions are in place for the challenge.–Kathi Jaworski