School Choice

Dougco delays decision on resolution

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school board members on Tuesday night postponed consideration of a resolution that states former employees should not seek a seat on the board for at least a year after leaving the district.

Susan Meek at a school board canddiate forum in September.
Susan Meek at a candidate forum in September.

The motion is generating criticism from those who see it as a direct attack on Susan Meek, the former district communications director who ran for school board in last month’s election, and on the rights of employees.

Brenda Smith, the president of the Douglas County teachers’ union who has largely stayed out of the district’s heated voucher battles, issued a news release condemning the proposed resolution.

“Not only is this abuse of power, it shows how misguided the work of the board has become,” Smith said. “Our district has been nationally recognized for collaboration on behalf of children, but the current board seems more focused on electioneering than the issues that will help all children in the Douglas County Schools at this critical time.

“Our members have focused on improving the education of our students for years, but this board is more concerned with making sure their position is secure.”

Meek, whose campaign criticized the board’s focus on vouchers during a budget crisis and who questioned the partisanship of Republican-backed board candidates, issued a letter to the community Tuesday that said board members “are looking to limit your personal liberty and quash the voice of the very people they oversee.”

Meek attended Tuesday night’s meeting but did not address the board after members announced they were delaying consideration of the resolution until January, after board president John Carson returns from vacation.

A board resolution is not legally enforceable and is instead considered a public statement, said Robert Ross, the district’s attorney. School boards across Colorado pass various resolutions each year to express their support for – or disapproval of – proposed laws or to weigh in on other topics.

Dougco’s school board, for example, is one of the few in the state to pass resolutions opposing the plaintiffs’ arguments in the Lobato school funding lawsuit.

Dan Gerken, the board’s vice president, said he does not remember when board members first discussed the proposed resolution, now dubbed the “anti-Susan Meek resolution” by some.

But he said it is part of an overhaul of board ethics and not an attack on any individual.

“We’re certainly not accusing Susan Meek of having done anything wrong,” Gerken said. Instead, he said, “I don’t think we want to have a person employed by the district who has one foot in the district and one foot in campaign mode.”

A proposed policy that would prevent board members from working for the district for one year after they leave the board also was delayed Tuesday night. The proposed policy, which would be enforceable if adopted, also would apply to a board member’s immediate family.

Meek was one of three candidates who sought to represent District A on the board. She eschewed political backing during her campaign and filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office questioning the Republican Party’s endorsement of three candidates, including one of her opponents, Craig Richardson, in the non-partisan race. Richardson won the seat.

When Meek left the district in March, months before she announced her candidacy, she was publicly praised by school board members at her last board meeting as a staff member. But words were considerably sharper during the campaign when Meek discussed her stance against vouchers.

“Former employees who choose to continue to serve the Douglas County schools, students and the community have every right to do so,” Meek said Tuesday in her letter to the community. “Employees and former employees have every right to have a voice and to be heard.”

Partial text of proposed board resolution on former district employees

  • WHEREAS, the Board of Education acknowledges that the appearance of a “revolving door” between district employment and service on the Board of Directors undermines the public’s trust and confidence …
  • WHEREAS, the Board of Education, in wanting to provide a “safe harbor” for former employee participation on the Board expresses itself now, outside of an election season, and nearly two years before the next election, by providing a normative guideline …
  • THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest during periods of employment by employees later seeking to serve on the Board, and in order to provide the greatest level of trust, confidence and integrity in the decisions of the Board of Directors, the Board expresses its support for the proposition that, as a norm of ethical conduct, no employee should file with the Colorado Secretary of State a candidate affidavit indicating an intention to run for the Office of Director of the Board of Education for at least one year immediately after termination of the employee’s service to the district.
  • BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that if a district employee fails to comply with this normative expectation, the Board encourages opponents of any such former employee in any race for office of Director of the Board of Education to cite this resolution in future campaigns …

Text of proposed board policy on former board members

  • “The District shall not consider an application for employment from any former director of the Board of Education or spouse or immediate family member living with such former director, within a period of one year immediately after termination of the director’s service on the board.
  • “In addition, no former director of the Board of Education or spouse or immediate family member living with such former director shall receive compensation or fees for services directly from the district, or indirectly from a person or entity doing business with the district, within a period of one year immediately after termination of the of the director’s service on the board.”

Full text of proposed resolution and full text of proposed policy


McQueen’s deadline looms for Memphis and Nashville to share student info with charter schools — and no one is budging

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A request for student contact information from Green Dot Public Schools to help with enrollment efforts sparked a fight between the state and Shelby County Schools.

As Tennessee’s two largest school districts fought an order to share student information with charter schools, the state education commissioner set a deadline last week.

Candice McQueen told the superintendents of Shelby County Schools and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools they had to provide the data to charter schools that asked for it by Sept. 25 — or the state would “be forced to consider actions to enforce the law.”

But with just three days until the deadline, neither district has said it will budge. The consequences “will be determined Monday,” McQueen told Chalkbeat on Friday.

McQueen has not offered more information about what those consequences could be, though some lawmakers have worried it could mean funding cuts. There is some precedent for such a move: The Nashville district lost $3.4 million in state funding in 2012 when it refused to approve a controversial charter school, according to The Tennessean.

The clash comes after the Nashville and Memphis districts refused to turn over student contact information to charter networks, who argue that information is vital to their operation. Many Memphis schools, including those in the state-run school district, have been struggling with under-enrollment.

An amendment to an untested U.S. Department of Education rule suggests local districts can withhold information like phone numbers, addresses and email addresses — but a new state law requires Tennessee districts to hand it over to charter schools within 30 days.

The state department of education asked the attorney general’s office to weigh in. Last week, the attorney general said the districts had to turn the information over, but also that districts could take a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents about their right to opt out.

Shelby County Schools posted opt-out forms for parents on its website the next day, and gave parents until Oct. 22 to fill them out. The form allows parents to keep their information from charter schools specifically or from outside entities more broadly, including companies like yearbook providers, for example.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The school boards for the two districts have been in lockstep in defying the state’s order, with the Memphis board even offering to write a legal opinion if Nashville were to go to court over the issue.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his legal team is still reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We still want to make sure parents know what their options are,” Hopson told Chalkbeat on Tuesday. “When we [McQueen and I] talked, she understood that our opt-out forms were out there.”

Anna Shepherd, board chair for the Nashville district, said the board met with its attorney this week to discuss the issue but took no action.

“We have not had any further conversation with the state concerning the release of data for MNPS students,” Shepherd said by email. “I’m not anticipating any action [before Monday].”

Reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

what's public?

Private managers of public schools, charter leaders enjoy extra buffer from public-records laws

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy Charter Schools CEO.

When Success Academy officials read the news last month that board chair Daniel Loeb had made a racially charged comment about a New York State senator, what did they do next?

Did Success CEO Eva Moskowitz frantically email confidantes about the incident? Did her team craft a new policy on board member conduct?

It turns out, we may never know.

That’s in part because emails sent by Moskowitz and other leaders of New York City’s largest charter network which oversees 46 public schools and 15,500 students are not subject to the same public-records laws as district school officials, such as Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Moskowitz and officials at other charter school networks are generally exempt from the law because they don’t work for individual schools or city agencies, both of which are required to hand over certain records to members of the public who request them. Instead, they are employed by nonprofit groups called charter management organizations, or CMOs, which aren’t covered by the state records law.

“Success Academy Charter Schools, Inc. (SACS) is a private nonprofit organization that provides services to charter schools, but it is not itself a charter school or a government agency under FOIL,” wrote Success Academy lawyer Robert Dunn in response to an appeal of a Chalkbeat request for Moskowitz’s emails under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, which the network had denied. “Thus, it is not in and of itself subject to FOIL or required to have an appeal process.”

In addition, Success officials said the emails would not need to be released because they qualify as internal communications that are exempt from the public-records law.

The city’s most prominent charter school networks — including KIPP and Uncommon — have similar CMO structures, which appears to shield their leaders from at least some FOIL requests. While “the KIPP NYC public charter schools themselves are subject to the New York Freedom of Information Law,” KIPP spokesperson Steve Mancini said in an email, the “CMOs are not.”

But some government-transparency advocates argue that the law is not so clear cut.

Because CMOs are so heavily involved in the operation of public schools, it could be argued that the vast majority of their records are kept on behalf of public schools and should be public, said Bob Freeman, executive director of the Committee on Open Government and an expert on public-records laws.

Even though nonprofits aren’t covered by FOIL, he said, “Everything you do for an entity that is subject to FOIL — everything you prepare, transmit, and receive — falls within the scope of FOIL.”

Success Academy officials emphasized that the network does not categorically deny public-records requests involving its management organization. For instance, it may hand over CMO records related to the daily operation of its schools, the officials said. The network decides on a case-by-case basis which CMO records are public and which are not, they added.

“We follow the same policies as all other charter management organizations,” said Nicole Sizemore, a Success Academy spokeswoman.

Uncommon Schools spokeswoman Barbara Martinez said that their individual schools are subject to public-records requests and the nonprofit CMO releases budget information on its public tax forms.

“Uncommon Schools is a non-profit organization that follows all local, state and federal laws regarding disclosure,” she said in a statement.

However, because public-records laws mainly apply to government agencies and institutions, it is likely that some important communications related to charter schools — such as charter officials’ emails to real-estate companies, for example and detailed financial records related to their CMOs would be off limits to the public.

The issue of charter management transparency flared up in Connecticut a few years ago.

After the state accused a CMO of nepotism and financial mismanagement of its charter schools, the Hartford Courant requested CMO records under the state’s Freedom of Information law. The CMO refused to hand them over, saying, “We are not a public agency.”

In response, state lawmakers proposed a law to increase CMO transparency and subject them to public-records laws. After charter advocates decried the law as overly broad, lawmakers amended it and the law was passed. (A similar bill was recently introduced in the California legislature but did not pass.)

Similar scandals involving CMOs could happen elsewhere, said Wendy Lecker, an attorney at the Education Law Center. During the debate in Connecticut, she called for making all CMO records public.

“Something done on behalf of a school should be subject to transparency and Freedom of Information laws,” she said. “I don’t see why they’d want to shield the public from that.”

A large number of charter schools are run by charter management organizations. In 2015, about 55 percent of New York City charter schools were managed by CMOs, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The nonprofits help their schools hire, pay, and train staff; analyze data; and handle advertising and public relations, according to a report by the NAPCS. The report notes that these organizations are distinct from textbook companies or other vendors that schools contract with because CMOs “have considerable influence over the instructional design and operations of their affiliated charter schools.”

The nonprofit structure has enabled networks to open new schools more easily, including ones in multiple districts and states, said James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center.

Even if New York’s public-records laws applied to CMOs, that would not guarantee that all their records would be accessible or easy to obtain.

New York City’s education department, for instance, is notorious for dragging its feet on FOIL requests. And some information is also exempt from the public-records law.

For instance, opinions or recommendations from within an agency or from outside consultants are exempt from public disclosure. Success’ lawyer argued that even if the network’s executives were subject to public information requests, Moskowitz’s emails to or about Loeb would fall under this “inter-agency” communication exception.

However, government agencies would still have to supply the requested emails, just with the exempted information redacted, said Allan Blutstein, the public-records advisor for the political opposition research group America Rising. Even redacted emails can provide a wealth of information, Blutstein said, since simply seeing when the emails were sent, who they were sent to, and how many were exchanged provides insights into how the organization responded.

“You may not get his or her personal opinion back and forth, but there’s value in knowing how soon they reacted, how soon they’re responding to other people,” Blutstein said. “You can make these types of inferences and learn a lot.”

In addition, institutions that are subject to FOIL must hand over more detailed budget information than nonprofits typically disclose, Blutstein said. While nonprofits are required to release general information, like how much they spend on supplies or training, public institutions must hand over almost every record, he said.