Corey G. Johnson | California Watch Blog
January 29, 2010 | Fresno school officials made an announcement this week that has raised eyebrows up and down the state: The public school district wants to go into the private charter school business.
As reported on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Fresno Bee, the Fresno Unified School District is seeking to use taxpayer funds to create a charter that would be managed by a district-created, nonprofit organization. The school would be open to children in kindergarten through 5th grade.
The charter's proposed management board would include the superintendent, Michael Hanson, two board trustees and two parents. None of the school's teachers would belong to a union. The district will ask their trustees to approve the plan on Feb. 10.
“This is clearly about student futures and parental choice,” superintendent Hanson told the Bee.
Faster than you could say "Exorcist," heads began spinning.
The Fresno Teachers Association blasted Hanson for the move. Even the California Charter School Association's Fresno office questioned the action. According to Tuesday's Bee:
Creating a nonprofit to oversee the school puzzles John Madrid, general manager of the California Charter Schools Association regional office in Fresno.
He said the district could open a charter school without establishing a separate nonprofit, as it already does with Sunset Elementary School.
Madrid also questions whether the nonprofit would truly function independently, since the board’s majority will be Fresno Unified officials.
'Creating this independent organization and having the superintendent and others on the board … Is there a conflict of interest?' Madrid asked.
By Thursday, the state charter school group seemed to soften its comments. In an interview with California Watch, CEO Jed Wallace called Fresno's proposal "bold" and "novel."
He acknowledged that Fresno's proposal would face a number of legal issues, but he cautioned against criticizing the idea as a "non-starter." Wallace added that Fresno's plan has already sparked discussions in cities across the state, where similar approaches are being considered. The Fresno district would likely refine its proposal over time, he said.
"We see a lot of superintendents beginning to think about how they can get some of the flexibilities afforded by charter school status," Wallace said. "This kind of thinking is inevitiable. It's only going continue."
If what's happening in Fresno is truly part of a growing trend, then what impact will these unique arrangements have on charter oversight and spending accountability?
In Lassen County, for example, the superintendent of Westwood Unified School District, Henry Bietz, also worked as CEO of Westwood Charter School.
But since last August, Bietz has been on a leave of absence from his superintendent position, which was prompted by a state audit that uncovered instances where Bietz was being paid by the charter while possibly working on public-district time.
Over the denials of the charter's attorney, auditors found, among other things, that the charter had paid Bietz more than $830,000 in salary and consultant fees while he was drawing his superintendent salary.
The Lassen County district attorney forwarded the matter to the California Attorney General's Office, which is reportedly investigating the matter, according to the Lasson News and the Redding Record Sunlight. The state's audit report can be read here.
The California Teachers Association declined to comment on the possible conflict-of-interest issues posed by the Fresno charter plan, saying they still didn't know enough about what was happening, spokeswoman Deena Martin told California Watch yesterday. And despite repeated attempts, officials with the California Department of Education's charter school division weren't available to comment, either.
But Stephanie Farland, policy analyst for the California School Board Association, said her organization has twice proposed legislation that would make charters abide by the same conflict-of-interest and transparency requirements of other taxpayer-supported schools. Each time, the bills were vetoed by the governor's office – once during the 2003-2004 session and again in the 2007-2008 session.
Farland said the school board association is hopeful that the current bill, AB 572, sponsored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, won't face a similar fate. Currently, charters don't have to comply with laws governing access to records or public meetings. Nor do their boards have to be transparent about spending decisions or what role personal associations play in the awarding of contracts.
AB 572 seeks to change that. It is supported by a number of school associations and districts, including, ironically, Fresno Unified. It is opposed by the California Charter School Association.
"This is a big issue," Farland said. "Charters don't want the same conflict-of-interest requirements that everyone else have to follow. So right now is what they're doing legal? Yes. Whether it's best practices? Now that's another issue. And there isn't a whole lot we can do about it."