Who’s minding the people who are supposed to be minding the schools?

(David Paul Morris / Bloomberg)
(David Paul Morris / Bloomberg)

Who’s minding the people who are supposed to be minding the schools?

Let’s look at two debacles involving schools, one on the West Coast and one on the East, that are symptomatic of problems around the country.

My colleague Emma Brown wrote in this story that  three former managers of the Options Public Charter School in Northeast Washington — the city’s oldest charter school — have been accused of enriching themselves with at least $3 million of public money that was supposed to be used to help some of the District’s most troubled teens and students with disabilities. The managers created for-profit companies that won contracts from the school and charged very high prices.

A civil lawsuit alleges that they did this with the help of a senior official at the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which is a non-elected entity that has financial oversight over charter schools in the District of Columbia. Charter schools, which operate outside of the traditional public school district, have their own administration and boards. They now enroll more than 40 percent of D.C. students and get more than $500 million in public funds every year to operate.

And it turns out, according to the lawsuit, that salary and bonuses for the chief executive, Donna Montgomery, during 2012-13 was at least $425,000, with her base salary at $240,000. Even the base salary is a lot of money for a school with about 400 students. Brown notes that Kaya Henderson is paid a base salary of $275,000 as chancellor of the traditional D.C. school system, which has about 45,000 students.

Officials of the charter school board said they were sure that problems were limited to this one school. But look at the timeline of how the board came to know about the problems at Options. From Brown’s story:

The city charter board launched an investigation of Options on Aug. 19, days after The Washington Post submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking contracts between the school and two for-profit companies founded and controlled by its managers: Exceptional Education Management Corp. (EEMC) andExceptional Education Services (EES).

 

Those contracts and other payments to the companies — including a $2.8 million contract signed in February for management services — are at the heart of the District’s case.

 

The board isn’t saying either way, but it seems likely that the board only realized what was going on when Brown asked for the documents. The board has long had a good reputation for its oversight of the city’s charter schools, but there’s no excusing this. In July, it said it had conducted a study of charter school finances and that it had found “no pattern of fiscal mismanagement” at Options in fiscal 2012. Clearly the board needs better oversight procedures to protect kids and public money.

Over on the West Coast, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, there’s an ongoing debacle with a $1 billion — yes $1 billion — initiative to get iPads for every student in the country’s second largest school system. There’s been one mistake after another. When the initial planning was done, everybody forgot about the keyboards that kids would need, an oversight which now could cost the district nearly $40 million.

Officials began distributing iPads to some schools and within a week, student hackers figured out to bypass the security system and kids began using the devices to check Facebook, download music and do other personal activities. The Los Angeles Times then reported that more than 70 iPads were “missing” from a pilot program.

And now, Steve Lopez of The Times wrote in this piece that he looked at some of the software programmed into the iPads by Pearson Education and he was less than impressed:

…For all the hype about students taking a magic carpet ride into the future on these tablets, I missed the wow factor. One eighth-grade math lesson included a video of some guy on a treadmill going faster and faster, with a question about how to graph his movement. But no matter how you answered, there was no feedback, and no right or wrong answer.

Lopez asks why school board members let Superintendent John Deasy make such a huge commitment without more oversight. One member, Steve Zimmer, told him that board members “are not equipped … to micromanage.” Wrote Lopez:

I’d have to disagree with him there.

 

We’re talking about a superintendent who’s in a race to spend $1 billion, counting bringing Wi-Fi to classrooms. And let’s not forget that Deasy was featured as a pitchman in a commercial for iPads, and Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino (who just resigned in a snit over the tech implementation) once worked for the parent company of Pearson, the firm hired to provide curriculum for the iPads.

 

So, yeah, do some micromanaging. Hold people accountable. Ask questions.

 

It makes you wonder who’s minding the minders.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | October 3, 2013