February 8, 2014; Charlotte Observer

Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer has a fascinating story about the just about wholly disastrous start-up of the StudentFirst Academy, a K-8 charter school in Charlotte. The founders, Phyllis Handford and Sandra Moss, had wanted (“for years,” Helms reported) to turn their private school, the StudentFirst Academy, into a charter school, ostensibly so that they could attract more students. Others might read that as hoping to attract public funding for their private school, and that is what it got—state approval for a $3 million budget as a charter school in the public school system. In fact, Helms quoted Handford practically admitting that the public funding spigot was the lure: “It is all about opening our doors to an academic wonderland that’s being funded by the government,” Handford said.

It didn’t take Handford and Moss years to make a hash of things. Here is the Helms story in a nutshell:

“Less than four months after StudentFirst charter school opened, those dreams collapsed amid allegations of mismanagement, nepotism, and financial irregularities. Overdue bills had the school on the brink of bankruptcy. Students were going without textbooks, losing teachers and taking long naps during the day, consultants reported. The school’s board of directors fired Handford and Moss, who are now suing the board they once recruited.”

The two founders are also charged with setting up a separate bank account for some of the money they managed for the school and spending at least $92,000 without proper documentation.

While Handford and Moss, neither of whom are licensed teachers, probably deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the school’s freefall, don’t let the board off the hook for what appears to be some horrendous shortcomings in its oversight and due diligence. The board chair, Victor Mack, who also serves as outreach director for the University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s College of Education, revealed that he gave Handford a $25,000 raise without reading the contract (the school’s charter school proposal had Handford’s salary at $65,000 and Moss’s at $55,000, but as of 2013, Mack had authorized salaries of $90,000 and $84,000, respectively) and admitted that he hadn’t known that Handford had been convicted more than a decade ago of misrepresentation to obtain unemployment benefits. The board also put Handford’s husband and son on the charter school’s payroll. (The husband served as the school nurse, though he is unlicensed and, according to Helms, apparently worked at a medical facility in some unexplained capacity at some time in his life.) Mack admitted that this was done in the knowledge that it was “taboo but not exactly against the law.” Perhaps the board didn’t oppose these hirings because Handford, her husband, and Moss were also board members. Although overseeing a public school system charter school, the board held three secret meetings in December alone that appeared to violate the state’s Open Meetings law.

In addition to the alleged mismanagement by Handford and Moss and the dubious oversight by the board, the state’s oversight also seems to have been kind of shoddy. Until asked by a reporter about some of these issues that are detailed in the complaint and response of the Handford and Moss lawsuit, the director of the North Carolina Office of Charter Schools, Joel Medley, said he was unaware of several of the allegations. Maybe he might have kept a closer eye on StudentFirst, or at least asked to review the documents revealed in the lawsuit. Perhaps the state might have simply checked out StudentFirst’s 990s from when it was a private school, which are so sparse in financial information as to raise questions about whether Handford and Moss should have been running anything. Maybe the school’s negligible finances would have raised questions as to whether Handford, Moss, and the board should have been authorized to run a school that, prior to 2013, was described as “hand-to-mouth,” but beginning in 2013 were given approval for  a publicly funded annual budget of $2.96 million rising to $3.93 million by 2017 (according to the school’s charter school application to the state, p.234).

If the allegations about financial improprieties, which seem abundant, prove true, they would still amount to relatively petty screw-ups in the broad scheme of things. Handford getting $90,000, her husband $11,000, and her son $22,000 aren’t sums to make the Handford family rich. But, more significantly, Handford and Moss mucked around with the educational lives of kids whose families expected and deserved better. They rode the impetus of the charter school movement to bail out their failing private school and got charter school supporters like the Children’s Scholarship Fund of Charlotte and the nonprofit Partners for Developing Futures in Los Angeles—and former Charlotte mayor, now North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory—to support and invest in them based on a wing and a prayer.

Aside from what seems to be simply shoddy oversight by the state office, what really undermines the charter school movement is the tendency of so many of its adherents to function as true believers. People who are legitimately discontent with some parts of the public school system transform themselves into diehard, facts-be-damned acolytes of charter schools. As a result, people like Handford and Moss and others, with not a qualification worth a lick, end up running multimillion-dollar charter schools with the educational fates of children in their hands.

When Albert Shanker, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed the idea of charter schools in 1988, he in no way wanted to create what has emerged today, a system of schools that are increasingly distinct and separate from public schools but for their public funding. He envisioned charter schools testing new ideas, functioning almost as laboratories to collaborate and share innovations with public schools, not creating the free-for-all that exists in so much of the movement, supported by true believers who even give the likes of Handford and Moss a free pass.

The StudentFirst debacle is bad on a number of fronts, but it is sadly not an isolated phenomenon.—Rick Cohen