Open and accessible? Here’s what happened when we tried to attend 10 Detroit charter school board meetings in a month.

When parents have an issue with their child’s school, there’s at least one place where they’re guaranteed a hearing on anything from school finance to student discipline: a school board meeting.

Yet in Detroit, a city with an infamously troubled school landscape, dozens of charter school board meetings are hard to find or poorly attended — if they happen at all.

Even finding the meeting times can be difficult. When a Chalkbeat reporter called to inquire about the board meeting at Covenant House Academy, the person on the other end of the line said “I don’t have that information,” and quickly ended the call.

David Ellis Academy did post its meeting schedule online, but the April meeting was set for Easter Sunday. It was canceled without notice.

These schools had not broken the law. But critics view such incidents as proof that charter schools in Detroit, which bring in more than $350 million from taxpayers for the 36,000 students they serve each year, aren’t doing enough to engage the community.

“If people aren’t asking questions, that means somebody is deciding a lot of stuff without the input of the people who it affects the most,” said Arlyssa Heard, an organizer with 482Forward, an education advocacy group. Heard says not enough parents are attending board meetings or signing up to serve on the boards themselves, but she says charter schools aren’t doing their part to draw in the community.

A Chalkbeat review of charter school meetings in April found that they often aren’t well-publicized; that citizens who show up often find that the meetings have been canceled; and that few families and other members of the public attend.

A reporter tried to attend 10 charter board meetings, proceeding roughly in alphabetical order. Four were canceled. When meetings took place, the reporter was the only person in the room who didn’t work for or oversee the school, except for one meeting where an advocate spoke on behalf of a student she believed had been wrongly expelled.

A meeting at Dove Academy, one of the longest-standing charters in the city, was called off without explanation or notice. At Cesar Chavez Academy, a meeting was canceled at the last minute because too many board members were absent to conduct official business.

In two cases, board meetings were called off because schools were struggling to stay afloat — cutting off public input at a crucial moment.

The board of Detroit Community Schools was abolished last year by the school’s authorizer, which appointed a “conservator” to address the school’s financial troubles. The meeting schedule is still posted online even though no meetings have taken place since October 2018.

At a second troubled school, Southwest Detroit Community School, the board canceled an April meeting because it was still scrambling to change its management structure, a controversial move that they hope will reverse nosediving test scores and enrollment.

Unlike traditional districts, charter schools don’t have to hold a minimum number of annual meetings. But some critics see the cancellations as a symptom of a deeper problem.

“In charters in particular, we don’t find them to be open, we don’t find them to be accessible, or collaborative, or inviting of feedback from parents,” said Danielle Flint, assistant director of Student Advocacy Center, an organization that petitions school boards across Michigan, including Detroit, on behalf of students who’ve been expelled.  “It’s a culture and climate issue within the school districts.”

Indeed, community members didn’t show up for almost any of the meetings. At small charter schools, the board and its advisors often sat around a single table, with no one else in the room. That was the case at Detroit Achievement Academy, a two-school district that enrolls fewer than 400 students. A staffer found a chair for a reporter a few feet back from the table. Kyle Smitley, the school’s founder and manager, later said that they’ve almost never had a public comment.

Smitley views empty board meetings as a sign that parents are engaging with her schools at other times.

“I’ve wondered if school boards with loud or heated public comment portions are that way because that was the only time their parents and stakeholders had to be heard,” she said in a text message.

The director of another small charter agreed that board meetings are seldom where concerns first surface in the school community, pointing to its small size and its focus on transparency.

“When an issue arises, parents generally bring it up with the teacher,” said Amanda Rosman, executive director of the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, adding: “If someone came to the board with an issue that we haven’t heard about first, we would be really surprised.”

Still, the school posts notices about the meetings on Facebook, on its website, and on the school’s front door. A few parents attend each month. Rosman says her board has only canceled a handful of meetings since the school’s founding in 2013, usually for weather-related reasons.

It would be a tall order to find out how often charter schools in Detroit cancel meetings. Charters have a larger market share in Detroit than in any American city besides New Orleans or Flint. There are 91 charter schools here, which are divided into 58 governing districts.

Each district has a school board — a group of adult Michigan residents (there are no other qualifications) who are recruited to oversee the school’s finances and leadership. Boards meet once a month, generally speaking. That’s 58 meetings a month just within the city. Members are chosen by the school’s authorizer, typically a public university, which is ultimately responsible for overseeing the school.

The sessions can be dry, but they are critically important: Last June, a charter school board approved a nail-biter of a budget for the coming school year despite the school’s empty coffers and numerous signs that it was failing its students. No one sounded a public alarm, and the school — Delta Preparatory Academy for Social Justice — closed abruptly in September, forcing students to scramble for new schools three weeks after the school year began.

The stakes could hardly have been higher for the one community member who a Chalkbeat reporter saw address a school board in April. Jenna Pickman, a social worker, went before the board of Detroit Collegiate Academy to appeal an expulsion. She was representing a student who was expelled for a behavior problem and is currently taking classes online. The board declined to reconsider the expulsion.

Charter schools were created to give public schools more autonomy so they could respond more nimbly to student needs and develop new and more powerful educational approaches. In Michigan, this was accomplished by creating a decentralized system of oversight for charter schools: Each charter network, many of which enroll only a few hundred students, would get its own school board.

As a result, it can be hard to find answers to basic questions about a system that enrolls more than 150,000 students statewide, including who sits on the school board, how effectively they manage the budget, and how often meetings are canceled.

Canceled meetings are hard on families, Flint said: “When you deal with a lot of families who are dealing with toxic stress, it really goes a long way to actually follow through with plans.”

Among traditional school boards, cancellations are rare, said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, which offers training to traditional and charter board members. He pointed out that charter board members are appointed, not elected as they are in traditional districts.

“I know in a public school setting, if the meetings get posted, in large part these board members are committed people,” he said. “They got elected, and they understand they have a responsibility. It is a pretty rare circumstance where a traditional board cancels a meeting.”

The board meeting at Dove Academy, a longstanding charter school in Detroit, was scheduled for 5:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in April. At 5:01 p.m., the front office was empty except for a few staffers. There was no sign advertising a public meeting.  

“There’s no board meeting today,” a receptionist said. She nonetheless agreed to make a few calls after being pointed to the school’s website, which confirmed that a meeting was in fact scheduled.

“It might be next week,” she said, hanging up the phone. As it turned out, it was pushed two weeks later to accommodate board members’ schedules. No one had bothered to update the school’s website or its Facebook page.