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Wednesday, 29 July 2015 14:15

Shining Rock leaders say transparency is goal

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schoolsShining Rock Classical Academy, a new charter school opening in Haywood County next month, will pull in more than $2 million in state and county tax dollars its first year if the current enrollment of around 230 students holds.

Public funding comes with strings, however.

Charter school boards are supposed to operate under the same criteria for transparency and open meetings that apply to pubic school boards. 

But as a start-up, Shining Rock has yet to fully embrace best practices for open meetings and public record access, and in some cases the charter school has had to correct non-compliance with the N.C. Open Meetings and Public Records law.

“It has been, and will continue to be, our goal to be transparent,” said Tara Keilberg, the chair of Shining Rock’s school board.

The Haywood County school board is currently more transparent and open than the board of Shining Rock, however.

Here’s some best practices in open government that the Haywood County school board follows that the charter school board has not yet adopted: 

• Puts videos of its school board meetings on YouTube and plays them on the local government TV channel on Charter.

• Posts agendas for upcoming meetings online so parents and the public can see what is going to be discussed.

• Emails agendas for upcoming meetings directly to news media so reporters have a heads up if something newsworthy is on tap.

• Keeps minutes of meetings that provide a detailed and realistic picture of the board’s discussion on issues.

• Holds a public hearing to gather input on its proposed school budget, and makes the budget available to the public prior to being passed by board.

School director Ben Butler said Shining Rock hopes to incorporate more best practices for open meetings going forward.

“We’re trying to put into place all meeting best practices. We are a work in progress,” Butler said.

For example, sharing agendas for board meetings so the public and parents know what topics will be discussed is “a good idea moving forward,” board chair Tara Keilberg said in an email.

No one from the public has ever spoken during the designated public comment period at the charter school’s board meetings.

“I wish they would,” Keilberg said.

But since agendas for meetings aren’t posted or made available to parents or members of the public, it’s unclear how they would know the meetings have a public comment period.

Charter schools also aren’t required to have public hearings on their budgets, but posting its budget on its website  “may be something we choose to do in the future,” Keilberg said.

This year, Shining Rock’s budget has been continually evolving as the school honed in on what its enrollment would be, which in turn determines funding. As a result, the final budget was being crafted right up until when the board approved it, allowing little time for the public to review it in advance.

“As a start-up, it’s difficult to determine budget until we get closer to knowing actual enrollment and need,” Keilberg said.

Since June, The Smoky Mountain News informed Keilberg and Butler of several instances when the board’s actions have been in violation of the state Open Meeting requirements:

• Providing 48 hours of notice to media outlets of special called meetings if those media outlets request to be notified. The N.C. Open Meetings law requires public bodies to announce when they will be meeting by posting them online and on the door of their board room.

“We have always abided by this rule,” Keilberg said.

But the law also requires public bodies to directly notify any party of a special-called meeting that has requested such notification. The requirement ensures public bodies aren’t meeting under the radar.

The Smoky Mountain News formally requested to be placed on a sunshine list for notification of special called meetings in January, but that didn’t happen. The Smoky Mountain News renewed its request in June. Since then, school officials have notified the paper of four special called meetings, but have routinely been shy of the required 48-hour window.

• Keeping minutes of committee meetings.

The Smoky Mountain News has requested minutes and agendas of committee meetings held by the board since March, but has not received any. The board is required to keep minutes of its committee meetings, since the discussions held by committees influenced decisions made by the full board. 

“Committee meetings are public meetings, and minutes from committee meetings are public record,” said Darrell Johnson, a consultant with the N.C. Office of Charter Schools in the area of board governance.

The charter school board didn’t officially become a public body until June, so it technically wasn’t required to keep minutes of committee meetings prior to that. 

“We did not begin keeping committee meeting minutes until after our charter was approved on June 8. I apologize that no notes are available,” Butler said in an email.

Since then, there has only been one committee meeting.

“We did not take minutes at that meeting. We have admitted that we were in error about this,” Keilberg said in an email.

Keilberg said minutes will be kept at all committee meetings going forward.

A schedule of when standing committees meet has not been provided, but Keilberg said they would provide notice of upcoming committee meetings as they arise.

The charter school board’s handbook runs counter to the N.C. Open Meeting law when it comes to committee meetings. The board’s handbook says transparency of committee meetings is merely a “best practice,” but claims committees aren’t subject to open meetings requirements.

That doesn’t square with state law, however. Despite what the board’s handbook says, Keilberg said the board is aware of the problem. 

In one area the newspaper has reached an impasse with Shining Rock on open meeting requirements, namely on the school board’s refusal to disclose property it is considering buying and property it has voted to purchase (see related article).

 

Irons in the fire

In reality, start-up charter school boards have an extensive to-do list in the year before they open. They are hiring teachers, recruiting students, readying a school building, crafting a budget, buying desks and computers, crunching enrollment numbers.

Learning the nuances of N.C. Open Meeting and Public Records laws could easily rank low among the priorities.

And for a group of parents and community members who are passionate about education, the governance side doesn’t always come naturally. It’s not uncommon for new charter school boards to have a learning curve on open meeting compliance, according to Deanna Townsend-Smith, lead consultant with the N.C. Office of Charter Schools.

“They are a new body, which is why during that first year we provide them additional support to work out all those issues,” Townsend-Smith said.

The N.C. Office of Charter Schools requires charter school boards to attend governance training where they learn what’s required as public bodies.

“During that preliminary planning year, we do governance training. That training is and was provided. That is just something they have to follow,” Townsend-Smith said.

A lot of information is covered and imparted at those trainings, however, she said.

Although Shining Rock technically didn’t come under the Open Meetings law until June when it was granted final state approval, the N.C. Office of Charter Schools recommends charter school boards behave like public bodies from the beginning.

“That is encouraged early on in the initial stages of writing their application,” Townsend-Smith said. 

 

Making the grade

Starting a new charter school can seem like an insurmountable feat. But staying open can also be a challenge. Nearly one in five charter schools that has opened in North Carolina has closed down.

The state historically capped the number of charter schools at 100. But that cap was lifted in 2011 after Republicans won the majority in Raleigh.

It led to a surge of new charter schools — 55 have come online since then. Another 15 are slated to open this August, bringing the total to just over 160 charter schools statewide.

Charter schools can’t open without permission from the state, however, and it’s not easy. The majority who apply are turned down. They have to demonstrate student demand, a sound business model and a quality curriculum, among other things.

There were 71 prospective charter schools in the running the year Shining Rock applied, and only 11 made the cut.

But charter schools have also closed: 42 have closed over the years, mostly due to financial struggles, with two more likely closing next month. Another half dozen failed to open at the last minute. 

Hoping to reverse that trend, the state implemented new protocols for start-up charter schools, including a mandatory one-year planning period with benchmarks that are supposed to be met along the way.

Ideally the ready-to-open process would stop schools from opening that aren’t really equipped, rather than seeing them open and struggle.

But it all depends on whether the individual board uses the evaluation checklist as a tool.

“As with anything, it is how those boards internalize and tend to value that information,” Smith-Townsend said.

The more robust evaluation during that ready-to-open year includes mandatory trainings for charter school board members and regular communication with a designated liaison at the N.C. Office of Charter Schools.

“I think there has always been accountability, I just think now the state board is more intentional in what they expect us to execute as far as communicating those expectations to charter schools opening so those benchmarks are in place to help set them up for success,” Townsend-Smith said.

The ready-to-open evaluation by the state is more focused on the nuts and bolts of what it will take to get the doors open: ensuring the school hits enrollment targets, that there’s a plan to meet the needs of children with disabilities, that insurance policies are in place, and the like.

After the school is off and running, a performance framework will kick in, which includes best practices for open government, Townsend-Smith said.

— News editor Jessi Stone contributed to this article.

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