Some NC charter schools fail to meet Open Meetings requirements

ahelms@charlotteobserver.com khui@newsobserver.comMarch 17, 2014 

  • Posting information online

    On Monday, the websites for five of the 15 charter schools open in Wake County didn’t list when board meetings will be held: Franklin Academy, Hope Elementary, Quest Academy, Torchlight Academy and the Triangle Math and Science Academy.

    Four Wake charter schools did list their board meetings online, but the information is on the calendar page instead of the board page: Longleaf School of the Arts, Magellan Charter School, Raleigh Charter High School and Southern Wake Academy.

  • Sunshine Week

    This is Sunshine Week, when advocates of open government celebrate the value of freedom-of-information laws. Watch for more coverage through Wednesday.

When Kathey Dailey asked about attending a charter school board meeting, she says administrators at her son’s school said those meetings were closed to the public.

They were wrong.

That school, StudentFirst Academy in Charlotte, is now fighting for its survival after allegations of mismanagement and financial irregularities emerged.

Among other challenges, two fired administrators sued the board of directors in February, claiming the board violated the N.C. Open Meetings Law by holding unannounced emergency meetings at a hotel and a member’s home.

Mecklenburg County has more than two dozen public school boards. Wake County has 16 – the Wake County Board of Education and the boards for 15 charter schools.

While Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the Wake County school system get most of the attention, each charter school is run by a board that must follow the same state laws on open meetings.

Millions of dollars in public money and the education of thousands of students are entrusted to these boards. While many area charters encourage public participation, some don’t meet the legal requirements for posting meeting schedules, a review of websites shows.

As the number of charter schools expands, access and transparency become important for more people. Board meetings offer a resource to monitor whether a start-up school can deliver on its marketing promises.

“You need to show up to a number of meetings,” said Tony Proctor, a StudentFirst parent and a member of the Mecklenburg PTA Council.

Charter school boards, unlike their school-district counterparts, are not elected. They begin as self-selected groups of like-minded people with a vision for a school. First they must form a nonprofit group to apply for the charter. During the planning stage – which often takes more than a year – they are not public bodies.

That changes when the N.C. Board of Education awards a charter, which entitles the board to get state, local and federal money for education. With that money comes public obligations, from holding open meetings to reporting academic data.

Like all public bodies, charter boards can close meetings to discuss specific issues, including personnel and some legal matters. They can also call emergency meetings as long as they meet requirements for giving notice. Any public body that has a website is required to post its scheduled board meetings.

The websites for five of the 15 charter schools currently open in Wake County don’t list when board meetings will be held.

When contacted by a reporter Monday, Bob Luddy, chairman of the board of directors of the Franklin Academy in Wake Forest, said he hadn’t known that the information needed to be online.

“We will have that information up,” he said.

Clarissa Fleming, the principal of Hope Elementary School in Raleigh, said it was an “error” on the school’s part that the website wasn’t updated to include the board meetings. She said the website would be updated.

There was no information about board meetings at the sites for five of 16 charters currently open in Mecklenburg.

The N.C. Office of Charter Schools provides training to charter boards on compliance with the open meetings law.

Director Joel Medley said he and his staff look for board information on the website and remind schools of the requirement to post meetings. But Medley said some schools simply post notices on a bulletin board or send notes to parents.

Several Wake and Mecklenburg charters go well beyond those minimum requirements, offering biographies and contact information for board members, posting agendas and minutes, and telling people how they can sign up to speak at board meetings. Some even offer forms for applying for board membership or for nominating someone for the panel.

Some board leaders say public participation, which tends to come mostly from parents and employees, is a good way to build trust and support.

“We are really putting it out there to try to get parents to our meetings,” said Bill Farber, chairman of the board at Lake Norman Charter School in Huntersville.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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