Dear Nonprofiteer, How can we throw the bums out of our charter school?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am a parent of two in a Charter School that used to have a great
reputation and earned every bit of it.  They have greatly slipped due to
the fact that the founding fathers/mothers (mostly 4 teachers) are still
controlling things 10 years later.  There is a great deal more that I can
tell you, but I really do not know where to start.

We have a small community of 20,000.  The charter school was
started when the state was getting rid of all the town elementary schools and
moving everyone to one county elementary school.  Our town was able at the last
minute to get set up as a Charter School.  This split the people of
the county.  Now, 10 years later, there are still hard feelings, especially
with the founding groups.

The charter school has a Board of nine including three teachers, one of whom is president.  The teachers have a strong hold
on the Board and get rid of anyone they feel threatened by (teachers,
administrators or Board members).  The
Board president is part of the founding group.  He has
been president now for three years and said when he was elected
this year that he did not want the position any more multiple
times.  So we have a president who does not want the role. 
He is also a 7th grade teacher who is one of the most apathetic and does
not give his children the time they need to succeed. 

This teacher/Board president hires and supervises the
school administrator/principal.  (The Board calls him "the principal" when they want it to sound like he has authority, "the administrator" when they want to show that they’re calling the shots.  Bad for us, the by-laws state that
the position is an administrator.)  Our Administrator/Principal feels his hands are tied and is ready to move
on because he has a position with no power.

The Board asked the Administrator/Principal to
try and work with the county school on something, but this turned out to be just lip
service.  After our administrator arranged to have our 7th- and 8th-grade kids participate in a wrestling program at the county school, our Board voted against the program, citing two ‘reasons’: "we do not want to send our children to the competition,"
and "We do not want our children wearing their colors."

There is apathy in the school and the teachers will tell you who controls
the school – "a couple of teachers that founded the school."  I know in my background (YMCA CEO) that having a Board made
up of staff is not healthy.  But this is what is written in the
by-laws, which cannot be changed without the Board’s vote.

I am not a rebel parent going out by myself, I have teachers, former
administrators (all of them), parents, board members, and community members that
feel there must be a change for the school to survive.  Please contact me with ways I can help the school and improve the school so
that they may once again deserve the reputation they once had.

As you can tell, I am very passionate about this as my children, along with
the other children in the school, are the ones who will get the short end
of the stick if this is not changed.  I THANK YOU for your thoughts.  Hopefully we will be
able to move ahead for the betterment of the children!

Signed, Concerned Parent

Dear Concerned:

What you’ve described sounds like it has little to do with the betterment of children and a whole lot to do with territoriality and turf wars.  The conversation about not having your students wear the other guy’s colors suggests a gang more than an educational institution.

Unfortunately, your situation is far from unique.  The Nonprofiteer isn’t a big fan of charter schools, for this and other reasons.  An example of that sacred cow the public-private partnership, charter schools were designed to "liberate" schools from "bureaucracy," but that turns out to mean "replace public accountability with the good intentions of private individuals and no accountability."  And she’s relieved to see (in some states, at least) public agencies haven’t completely abandoned their regulatory role, and are preparing to close down charter schools for nonperformance

So–in your case–where’s the government?  This is a public school: if education is
unsatisfactory, it’s the job of the town and/or the county to make it
satisfactory.  Every charter school has, as the name suggests, a
charter from a governmental body to provide education.  If the founders’ apathy
and cliquishness is interfering with that education, go to the relevant agency and tell it to revoke
the charter.  Somewhere up the decision-making line you’ll find people who work directly for you–not because you’re a parent but because you’re a voter and taxpayer.  Show these people specific ways your children are being shortchanged–there’s no sports program and the Board won’t permit use
of the county school’s sports facilities, for instance–and you should
be able to get some results.

But bear in mind that enthusiasm
for charter schools is based on the notion that schools run by teachers
are better than schools run by administrators–that the people
closest to the children should have control over the children’s
education.  To have any hope of wresting control from the founding teachers, you’ll have to be able to document that the school is, in fact, deteriorating.  This means showing that test scores have gone down, or dropout rates gone up.  As important to a
child’s educational experience as qualitative factors like teacher
apathy may be, they lack the clout of declining student scores.  Without those, you may encounter regulators who turn a deaf ear to your concerns.

In that case, or in case for whatever reason your state isn’t ready, willing or able to move against the entrenched founders of your charter school, you’ll have to engage in self-help.  This means forgetting everything we’ve just said and treating the school like the private nonprofit it so eerily resembles.

In a private nonprofit, power comes from money.  Who pays the bills for your charter school?  Most of them get some funding from the state and must raise the rest.  If yours is like that, then the teachers can only maintain their control if they’re raising the money and no one else is.  If that’s the case, you need to get together with the people who agree with you and raise (or give) money for programs you want.  It’s a simple quid pro quo: if the school doesn’t do what you ask, you don’t give it the money.

Likewise, in a private nonprofit power rests with the Board.  Particularly if the Board president doesn’t want the job anymore, it sounds like the problem isn’t entirely that the founders can’t stand to let go–it’s that nature abhors a vacuum and there’s no one else asking to take on the role.  In your group of parents and teachers opposed to the founding cabal, find someone willing to serve and start working to get that person elected.  Maybe, offered some relief, the Board president will be willing to leave before his term expires.  In any case, make the campaign for election to the Board loud and public.  If the founders can’t be forced into permitting participation by their opponents, perhaps they can be embarrassed into doing so.

And you might investigate other providers of charter-school services, like the nonprofit Green Dot chain, which is organizing (rather than battling) teachers in an effort to improve Los Angeles high schools.  Try getting a bid from them for running your school.  As the proponents of charter schools are forever pointing out, there’s nothing like a little competition to improve product offerings. 

Please let us know how things develop.  Compared to dislodging an entrenched public-private partnership, overthrowing the government is easy; on the other hand, that "public-private" situation gives you two fronts on which to wage war.  Good luck. 

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