Commentary: Kestrel Heights rebounding from Founder’s Syndrome

07/29/2014 12:00 AM

07/28/2014 4:08 PM

Kestrel Heights School has been in the news several times over the past few months due to one simple reason: change. A word that brings both fear and promise depending on your thinking.

Kestrel Heights School has been in need of change for many years. Up until 2012, the Board of Directors suffered from Founder’s Syndrome – a phenomenon experienced by corporations wherein one or more founders maintain disproportionate power and influence.

When I (Grace Marsh) was elected board chair in 2011, board member Scott Owen and I saw the need for change. Why? Because since its founding Kestrel had not been able to obtain more than a five-year charter from the state. Its renewal history stands at 2-five year charters and 2-three year charters. Compliance with state regulations and overall academic performance determine a charter school’s renewal. While much has been said about charters lacking oversight, it is not true. Oversight by the Office of Charter Schools (OCS) is much more stringent than traditional public schools.

As chair, I focused on the root causes of the school’s failure to receive a 10-year charter and what needed to be done to correct the areas of non-compliance outlined by the OCS. After Scott joined the board in 2009, he became an ally; and we worked together to understand these issues. As a Navy veteran, accountability is Scott’s calling card. As we demanded transparency inside the board, Scott and I met instant opposition to changes by the founding members. Hard questions had to be asked. Failure of leadership was vocally denied; and our discussions were unwelcomed. However, we persevered and encouraged the board to accept the OCS recommendations and correct areas of non-compliance as stated.

Founder’s Syndrome had created complacency within the school. In 2012 change took hold, and in the 2012-13 school year we were able to get the full board behind performance evaluations for all staff.

Last year the board presented a reorganization to the staff, and a revolt took place. Failure requires accountability and accountability requires action. The board took action. We decided change was necessary. A change in management and operations. No more business as usual. For two years the board announced these changes were coming and attempted to inform the staff about future restructuring. Scott and I were ridiculed by staff members and even the founders.

When the board voted this year not to renew the contract of a founder, a small group of parents complained to state regulators and the media, in an apparent effort to embarrass the board, harm our integrity, and discredit the school’s charter. As a result, the school suffered public relations damage. No mention of Kestrel’s successful launch of an elementary school two years ago, which added much value to the south Durham community. The middle school continues to grow. Regrettably, the high school remains problematic with shrinking enrollments. For the last three years, graduation rates decreased and minority graduation decreased by 12 percent.

I think our legacy will stand having broken through Founder’s Syndrome. We diligently recruited new board members that are educated folks and have no conflicts of interest. We asked hard questions and made hard decisions. Although we no longer serve on the board, we leave offering our blessings for success to Kestrel during this era of change and remain ambassadors for the school.

Prior to changing bylaws last year, board members were allowed to serve for 15 years. Terms are now a maximum of seven years. Scott recently resigned to accept a college teaching job out-of-state and I leave with seven years of service. Scott and I deeply care about Kestrel. As fiduciary stewards of taxpayers’ money, we had to promote changes.

This year a new managing director will take the helm at Kestrel. Now, with a strong board, he will be positioned to move Kestrel Heights in a positive direction. Now the success of the elementary and middle school can be replicated in the high school. That is the change we hope to see. Kestrel Heights can and will become the model K-12 charter school within the state. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change.”

Grace Marsh and Scott Owen are former board members of Kestrel Heights Charter School in Durham.

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