Better oversight could have weeded out a charter school scandal

It may be tempting for legislators to point to the scandalous payments made to an Orlando charter school principal as a reason to tighten regulations governing all charters. In the last week, we’ve learned that the principal of the now-closed NorthStar High Charter in Orlando not only received a $519,000 contractual payout from her board, her compensation exceeded the amount the school had spent on classroom instruction. (NorthStar closed before the Orange County School Board could shut it down for poor academic performance.)

Are school boards are doing enough to provide oversight of the charters in their portfolios?

But now might be a better time to set aside legislative energy and ask whether school boards are doing enough to provide oversight of the charters in their portfolios (as in many states, only school districts can authorize charter schools in Florida).

It may seem hard to hold the Orange County School Board accountable in this case. According to one official at the Florida Department of Education, the last couple of financial reports that NorthStar High sent to the school district showed that the principal earned about $73,000 a year. But her actual pay was much more. Last week, the Orlando Sentinel unearthed details showing that salary, stipends, and bonuses last year brought Principal Kelly Young’s annual pay to about $305,000.

Why would the district question the charter school’s own reporting? Because there is enough information in independent audits of the school to question whether it was fiscally and organizationally sound and that should have led the district to probe more deeply.

Every year since 2009, audits have revealed that NorthStar High paid $86,000 to $96,000 yearly to the principal’s husband “for certain management services.” Additionally, those same audits noted that some employees required “85% of the unpaid contracted salary” should the Orange County School Board terminate the charter. One of those employees turned out to be the principal.

To borrow from the principles and standards of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, Orange County would not have imposed administrative or compliance burdens on NorthStar High by simply inquiring more deeply into these practices. It’s true that the charter school’s own board seemed absent in its required oversight of NorthStar, and it behaved (at best) irresponsibly in signing off on the outsize compensation for its principal (The school only enrolled 180 students in grades 9-12). But the school district is responsible for overseeing the charters it authorizes, and that responsibility became more critical when audits highlighted conflicts of interest and other red flags.

But, of course, some district authorizers are more committed to their job than others. Only ten school boards in Florida have embraced NACSA’s principles and standards, which arguably have advanced the case for greater standards and accountability in the charter sector while respecting the autonomy that charters ought to have. Orange County is not among those boards.

That hasn’t stopped the county school board chairman from telling reporters that NorthStar’s practices are “a shameful abuse of public tax dollars.” He’s right, but it doesn’t absolve him or his board of their responsibilities, either. And the poor oversight of one charter is no reason to punish them all.

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