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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012

City Officials Limit Public Comment on Charter Schools

So what are they trying to hide?

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In the accelerating privatization of public schools, taxpayer-funded charter schools seem to have a better reputation than voucher schools because they are linked to a public entity—typically the city, a school board or an institution of higher learning—and they’re accountable to the public.

But an examination of the oversight of the handful of schools chartered by the city of Milwaukee shows that public meetings allow for no public comment; major decisions are made by a committee that doesn’t have its own website or report its meetings or activities on the city website; and a small network of charter school supporters review and approve schools run by their own colleagues, decisions that are loaded with potential conflicts of interest.

As a result of pressure from the watchdog group Women Committed to an Informed Community and questions from the Shepherd, City of Milwaukee Clerk Jim Owczarski said the city’s website will begin providing information about the meetings of the Charter School Review Committee (CSRC), an appointed board that approves and monitors the city’s nine charter schools—information that hasn’t been easily available to the public since the committee’s inception 20 years ago.

 

Hines Blocks Comments from Charter School Opponents

Prior to Owczarski’s announcement, the public’s ability to access information about and comment on the city’s charter schools was severely limited.

For example, Common Council President Willie Hines, who chairs the Steering and Rules Committee, called security on attendees of its June 21 meeting who had asked to speak on pending charter school applications.

Hines’ committee, which meets irregularly, vets the decisions made by CSRC, which approves or denies charter school applications, sets performance goals and recommends charter renewals.

The CSRC is currently chaired by Jeanette Mitchell of Cardinal Stritch University. For years, however, the committee had been chaired by Marquette University’s Howard Fuller. Fuller’s Marquette-based Institute for the Transformation of Learning set up the CSRC and still provides support for it.

The women who attended the June 21 meeting wanted to respond to the presentation of the board members and sponsors of Quest-Milwaukee—Fuller, Zoological Society of Milwaukee President Robert Davis and Edgar Russell—as well as Mitchell.

Hines wouldn’t let them.

“This is a public hearing for the applicants,” Hines told the attendees who wanted to speak. “This is not a public hearing for those of you in the audience.”

Essentially, Hines blocked public input on a program that receives significant taxpayer funds. According to video posted on the city’s website, Hines then argued with the women and had the committee clerk call security to remove them.

The committee voted 5-2 to approve a charter for Fuller’s Quest-Milwaukee school. The full Common Council affirmed that decision on an 11-2 vote.

This isn’t the first time that Hines has barred public testimony from a public meeting on charter schools.

On Nov. 15, Hines didn’t allow the public to speak at a Steering and Rules Committee hearing on the annual performance review of the city’s charter schools, yet charter supporters were able to speak freely with the members of Hines’s committee. Nor did Hines mention that one of the charter schools under review—the Darryl Lynn Hines Academy—is run by his brother.

In 2011, Hines stood in the way of public testimony on the pending charter school application of California-based Rocketship Education. When Rocketship’s application came up for approval by the full Common Council last November, Ald. Nik Kovac had attempted to send it back to Hines’s committee for another hearing. Hines objected, claiming that there would be too much public testimony, both for and against charter schools. Kovac’s motion lost and the council approved Rocketship’s application 14-1, with Ald. Robert Baumann voting against it.

Hines did not return the Shepherd’s request to comment on this article.

 

‘They Just Shut Us Down’

Marva Herndon, chair of the group Women Committed to an Informed Community, told the Shepherd that Hines and Mitchell run their committee meetings with no comments from the public. Like Hines, Herndon said that Mitchell has not allowed the public to speak since she’s become chair of CSRC this year, although previous chairs had let the public speak on occasion.

(Mitchell did not respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment on this article.)

“They just shut us down,” Herndon said.

Herndon had co-signed a letter critiquing Quest-Milwaukee’s application, which claimed that Quest had too few appropriately licensed teachers, lacked important technology contracts, needed $11,000—more than $3,000 above the $7,777 per-pupil taxpayer-funded tuition rate—to be sustainable, and questioned whether the Quest board could truly come up with a valid two-thirds majority vote given that two of its three board members—Fuller and Deborah McGriff—are married.

They also questioned the relationships between and potential conflicts of interest of the Fuller-led Quest-Milwaukee, his Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), his Institute for the Transformation of Learning, and the members of the CSRC, who reviewed Fuller’s proposal.

While the letter was entered into the public record, the aldermen on the committee never mentioned its contents during their June 21 discussion with Mitchell or the Quest representatives.

In November, committee members voted to approve the CSRC’s recommendation that the city continue working with Fuller’s CEO Leadership Academy, even though it was among the lowest-performing schools chartered by the city. Members also voted to extend the time Fuller’s Quest-Milwaukee needed to get up and running.

 

Questions Lead to More Public Disclosure

Herndon said she’s so concerned about allowing the public to speak in Hines’s committee because it’s the first time—and pretty much only time—that information about the city’s charter schools is made available to the public.

Prior to Hines’s committee hearings, all discussion of the city’s current and pending charter schools takes place in the Mitchell-chaired CSRC.

But little is known about the committee, which has existed since 1993.

A review of the city’s website shows that the CSRC has never posted its agenda, minutes or notices of its meetings online—until Herndon’s group and the Shepherd raised the issue with Common Council members last week. Going forward, the CSRC’s meeting information will be available on the city’s Legistar service.

City Clerk Jim Owszarski told the Shepherd that the CSRC has complied with a city ordinance requiring that public meetings be publicly noticed 24 hours in advance in three places within City Hall. There is no city requirement for online public notices, Owszarski said.

Cindy Zautcke, who works as a policy analyst for Fuller’s Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette and acts as clerk for CSRC, said she provides the public with meeting agendas, minutes and material upon request. She provided a few of them to the Shepherd.

But Herndon said she and her group haven’t been so lucky.

“We have to fight to get that information from Cindy,” Herndon said.

CSRC members are also required to fill out statements of economic interest to ensure that there are no financial ties or conflicts of interest between committee members and the schools they oversee. But those financial documents are not available on the city’s website, either, although Owczarski said they are available upon request, and they were quickly provided to the Shepherd.

Then again, the financial information on those official statements isn’t always useful.

Council President Hines, who chairs the committee that oversees the charter schools, is the brother of Darryl Lynn Hines, who operates a city-chartered school.

But financial information about a sibling’s ties isn’t requested on the city’s financial disclosure form and Hines did not offer it during the Nov. 15 Steering and Rules Committee meeting, when he and his colleagues reviewed the city’s charter schools. The Darryl Lynn Hines Academy—along with Fuller’s CEO Leadership Academy—were among the lowest-performing schools chartered by the city. But the aldermen approved the CSRC’s recommendation that the city continue its relationship with both of them.