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.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.

Future of Schools

Homeless students found stability at School 14. Now the school faces a big shake-up.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Anna Chaney is a parent at School 14, which will be restarted as an innovation school.

Anna Chaney didn’t expect to love School 14. She only sent her daughter because her family became homeless and it was the neighborhood school for their shelter.

But the school soon became an important part of their lives. It has a close-knit community, she said, and there is an abundance of help for families, such as a food pantry, after-school programs, and Christmas gifts.

“Once I was on my feet and able to leave the shelter, we made sure to find a house that was in the boundary,” she said.

But last year, Chaney and other parents at the school got a painful shock: After years of low test scores, Indianapolis Public Schools was considering taking drastic action at School 14 by restarting it as an innovation school. Under the plan, which was approved by the school board last week, the school will be managed by a charter operator, with a new principal, and the teachers will likely be replaced — a seismic shift for a school that has long been a place of stability for students living with instability at home.

School 14, which is also known as Washington Irving, has gotten several failing grades, with a brief period of D grades, over the last six years. But many of its parents were nonetheless surprised that the school had struggled on state tests for years.

“There were a lot of people who didn’t think their school was broken,” said James Taylor, CEO of the John Boner Neighborhood Centers, a nearby community center that works with many families at the school. “From a parents’ perspective, it felt like it was a stable environment that people wanted to have their children in.”

By restarting School 14, Indianapolis Public Schools is betting that the potential for improved test scores outweighs the risk of compromising the supportive role the school has played for families.

“We value consistency but at the same time, we are obligated and responsible for academic excellence,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “We are not getting the results from the school in terms of performance. It’s one of those situations where we clearly need to go in a different direction.”

For parents at the school, the situation is more complicated. Chaney, for one, said that she was probably blinded to low test scores by everything else the school offered her family, and she now favors the restart.

“We love that school so much that we were kind of scared to step up and say, ‘yeah, we need to change some stuff,’ ” said Chaney, a member of the parent organizing group Stand for Children, which has supported many innovation school conversations.

School 14, a striking brick facade that stands out from the residences surrounding it on the near eastside, sits at a crossroads of Indianapolis’ wealth and poverty. With a boundary that stretches across vast swaths of downtown, its neighborhood includes the picturesque houses of Chatham-Arch and Woodruff Place — and some of the city’s homeless shelters, including the Julian Center and the Salvation Army Shelter for Women and Children.

While affluent families in the city’s downtown often choose magnet and private schools, School 14 has long served many homeless students, at least one time having the largest proportion in the city.

Last year, the school enrolled 456 elementary school students, and it served more children living in shelters — 14 students — than any other school in the district. (The school is expanding to 8th grade.) Federal law requires public schools to continue busing students to their old school if they become homeless, and nearly every school in the district educates some homeless children. There were several campuses with higher overall rates of homelessness, which includes students who were forced to move in with friends or relatives or live in hotels.

But while the challenges at School 14 are not unique, advocates and families say it has been shaped by its unusually transient population, and it has become a hub to connect local nonprofits with families.

When Ebony Turner, who has a 4th grader at the school, was laid off, she would often stop by School 14 to use the computers to look for work, and it was a staffer at the school who helped her find a job as a teaching assistant. “They have helped me tremendously,” said Turner, adding that staff at the school always advocate for what’s best for students.

With the district’s new plan for the school, it could be a radically different place next fall. The board voted last week for the campus to be converted to an innovation school managed by URBAN ACT Academy, a new charter school founded by Nigena Livingston.

As an innovation school, School 14 will still be considered part of the district. But the school will be operated by Livingston without daily oversight from the district. In the four years since the state created innovation schools, Indianapolis Public Schools has restarted four struggling schools with innovation partners. Most of those schools have seen improvements in test scores.

Livingston, who has been an educator for over 15 years, moved to Indianapolis in 2016 after she won a fellowship from The Mind Trust, a nonprofit that has supported many of the innovation schools in the district. She plans to use “place-based learning” at School 14, a philosophy that incorporates the surrounding community into the projects students pursue at school.

When students are struggling, parents, educators, and community groups need to come together to support them, said Livingston.

“These are all of our students and we are all responsible for student outcomes,” said Livingston. “We are all working together.”

Since Livingston was chosen as a potential operator for School 14, she has won support from many of the community partners and parents at the school. Taylor of the Boner Centers said that he believed her vision for the school and her focus on place-based learning could help stitch the school into the community.

But the plan to restart the school has also inspired resistance.

School board member Elizabeth Gore, who voted against the proposal last week, said the district could have improved the school by giving it more support.

“Using outside partners is one way, but not the only answer when we have a good core of principals and staff to work on our own to restore the academic quality,” she said.

Several parents at School 14 — some supporting the restart and some opposing it — seemed to share many of the same concerns about the plan. They said the school would benefit from newer technology, and they would be happy to see a new curriculum. But they also said they would like some current teachers to remain.

When the school restarts, however, many of the teachers will likely leave. Teachers at innovation are employed by the operator rather than the district. In order for current teachers from School 14 to remain at the school, they will need to apply for positions with URBAN ACT Academy. If Livingston hires them, they will be giving up their contracts with the district, and the protections of their union membership.

Because the staff and parents learned in the fall that School 14 would likely be restarted, educators there have already been in limbo for months.

“There has to be a better way,” said Judith Fleurimond, a parent of two children at the school and a member of Stand. “Teachers are important. A teacher who has worked at a school for that many years shouldn’t have to just get up and pack and leave.”