Education advocates and charter leaders debated at a hearing Wednesday legislation that would give the D.C. Public Charter School Board greater authority to see financial records of private management organizations.
“Charter schools are public schools,” D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), co-sponsor of the bill, said. “They expend nearly one in 10 of our locally raised tax dollars, yet we don’t have nearly enough information about how that money is spent.”
The law, first introduced in March, would give the city’s charter board the ability to request financial records from private companies that receive 10 percent or more of a public charter school’s annual revenue or that derive at least a quarter of total revenue from a charter school. Such management companies sometimes contract with charter schools to handle administrative functions.
The legislation is a response to two lawsuits in recent years alleging that D.C. charter school leaders created private management companies in part to divert millions of taxpayer dollars from schools for personal gain.
The charter board voted in February to revoke the charter of Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School for fiscal mismanagement. The board relied on court documents that showed the school’s founder, Kent Amos, paid himself a salary of more than $1 million annually through a private management company to run the school. Amos and his management company agreed last spring to pay $3 million to settle the lawsuit.
Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter board, said repeated requests for information from the private company had been unsuccessful. The fix detailed in the proposed legislation would have helped the board discover the abuses earlier, “saving millions of taxpayer dollars,” he said.
At the hearing, some advocates urged the D.C. Council to go further in its attempt to address fiscal transparency of charter schools.
“Let’s be clear, the bill takes a tiny bite of a big topic,” said Fritz Mulhauser, co-chairman of the legal committee for the D.C. Open Government Coalition.
A National Research Council report released earlier this year said that the authors repeatedly struggled to get basic data and information about charter and traditional schools, making it difficult to draw comparisons and determine whether the needs of struggling students were being met.
Individual charter schools are not legally considered government agencies, so they are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests or open meetings requirements.
The schools submit information to the charter board, including budgets, board of directors meeting minutes and financial audits. Such information is available through the charter board.
A former charter school parent said he was unable to get basic information about a test administered at his child’s school, and another speaker said there is no chance for public input when charter schools make decisions about where to locate if they are leasing a private building.
Several charter leaders testified that increasing reporting requirements would be burdensome for small nonprofit schools.
“I wear a lot of hats,” said Richard Pohlman, interim executive director of Thurgood Marshall Academy. “I was administering the PSAT this morning. I was disaggregating data last night until 1 a.m.”
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), co-sponsor of the bill, said the primary responsibility for financial oversight of charter schools rests with the charter board. He said the legislation is intentionally limited in scope to give the charter board access to financial information from private management companies.
“We are trying to expand their authority, so in the end, we can do a better job through them,” Grosso said.