Some Newark charter schools fail to fully comply with transparency rules

A sign at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School in Newark. Schools throughout the city will temporarily close beginning Monday.
Several Newark charter schools have not made recent board meeting documents available to the public. Above, a sign on the door of Great Oaks Legacy Charter School in March 2020. (Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat)

Last week, the board that oversees one of Newark’s largest charter school operators met to discuss several weighty issues, including COVID testing, student learning loss, and plans to buy a school building.

But members of the Great Oaks Legacy Charter School community would not have known those topics were on the agenda because it was not posted on the school website. And if parents or employees wanted to know what was discussed at the public meeting, they wouldn’t find the meeting minutes posted either. As of Monday morning, the most recent board minutes available online were from last May.

Shannon Francis Esannason, whose son is in eighth grade at one of the group’s schools, said she had no idea the board met last week. The meeting was not advertised on the school’s Facebook page, Instagram account, or calendar, and Francis Esannason said she did not receive an email notice.

“They don’t invite us to the meetings,” she said. “It would be nice to know what’s going on.”

Posting charter school board information isn’t just a courtesy to the public — it’s the law. New Jersey charter schools, which are independently operated public schools, are subject to the same transparency requirements as traditional public schools. The requirements include posting board meeting minutes online and releasing agendas at least 48 hours before public meetings.

Yet, in a review of their websites, Chalkbeat found that many Newark charter schools had not posted the agendas or minutes of recent board meetings. By contrast, Newark’s traditional school district publishes detailed meeting agendas and minutes online, as well as videos of every board meeting.

Charter schools’ failure to keep the public informed about their board proceedings is significant, as more than a third of Newark’s public school students attended charter schools last year and $300 million, or 28% of the district’s budget this school year, will go to charter school students. 

“Whenever public money is involved, I think you expect to have a high level of transparency,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a public policy professor at Rutgers University who has studied New Jersey charter schools. “If there’s no transparency, it’s very difficult to have effective oversight.”

Dominick DiFalco, Great Oaks Legacy’s chief strategy officer, said Monday evening that the organization had resolved a technical issue and up-to-date board documents are now available online. He also said links for virtual board meetings are posted on the school website before meetings.

“We continue to comply with public law regarding the posting of regular meeting notices,” he said in an email.

Like the school boards that oversee traditional school districts, boards of trustees govern public charter schools. The boards, which typically meet every one or two months, set school policies, hire school leaders, and approve budgets and curricula. 

New Jersey’s charter school regulations specify that the boards of trustees must post their meeting minutes on the schools’ websites. The rules also make clear that charter boards are bound by the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. That law says public bodies must give 48 hours advance notice of meetings and, “to the extent known,” the meetings’ agendas; it also says meeting minutes must be made “promptly available to the public.”

But many charter schools are falling short of those requirements. When Chalkbeat reviewed the websites of Newark’s 17 charter school operators on Friday, it found:

  • only two schools had posted agendas for their most recent board meetings,
  • 12 schools had not posted meeting minutes since November or before,
  • nine schools did not appear to post any meeting agendas,
  • and only one school, Achieve Community Charter School, appeared to post recordings of its board meetings. (Boards are not required to post recordings, though many traditional school boards do.)

North Star Academy, Newark’s largest charter school organization, did not appear to publish any meeting agendas on its website, as of Friday. The most recent minutes available online were from November.

A North Star spokesperson said board minutes are posted after they are approved, and November’s minutes were the last to be approved. The board does not typically post agendas in advance because they frequently change, but final agendas are made available to the public. 

“As a public school, North Star posts all meeting notices and board meeting minutes in accordance with the law,” the spokesperson said.

On the website of KIPP New Jersey, the city’s second biggest charter operator, the most recent agendas and minutes were from October. A KIPP spokesperson said minutes from its last meeting, in December, will be posted after the board approves them at its February meeting.

After Chalkbeat contacted the schools, North Star and KIPP added more recent agendas to their websites Monday afternoon. 

Newark’s charter school boards differ in the amount of information they include in their public documents. Some boards publish meeting minutes that span multiple pages and go into great detail, while others share single-page minutes with few details.

Still, the board documents often include valuable information. For instance, in the minutes Chalkbeat reviewed, charter schools shared their latest enrollment numbers, staffing levels, expansion plans, data on fights and suspensions, and the amount of federal pandemic-relief money they are set to receive. When up-to-date minutes are not available online, families and community members who aren’t able to attend every board meeting might miss out on that information.

While charter school boards are responsible for posting those documents, the state education department shares some of the blame, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, an advocacy group that has clashed with charter schools in court. The department does not always fulfill its duty to monitor charter schools’ compliance with the law, he said. (A state spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

“The department’s oversight of this program is exceedingly weak and almost nonexistent,” Sciarra said, adding that he believes the agency’s limited capacity to provide oversight has “reached crisis levels.”

Update: This story was updated to include a response from Great Oaks Legacy Charter School, and to reflect that on Monday evening the organization posted additional board documents online.

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