A politically connected company with a limited track record has been chosen to take over a low-performing North Carolina elementary school.
The State Board of Education voted 7-4 on Thursday to hire Charlotte-based Achievement For All Children to manage Southside Ashpole Elementary School in Robeson County. Southside is the first school chosen for the Innovative School District, a new state program backed by Republican lawmakers to take over up to five low-performing elementary schools and turn them over to third-party operators.
“Don’t forget this school," state Board of Education member Olivia Oxendine said to ISD Superintendent Eric Hall before the vote. "I’m going to hold you to it. These kids have high potential."
Achievement For All Children is heavily connected to Oregon resident John Bryan, a generous contributor to political campaigns and school-choice causes in North Carolina. He has taken credit for passage of the law creating the Innovative School District.
The board of directors for Achievement for All Children includes former Rep. Rob Bryan, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who introduced the bill creating the new district. John Bryan contributed about $17,000 to Rob Bryan’s campaigns for the state legislature from 2013 to 2016.
Tony Helton is chief executive officer of both Achievement For All Children and TeamCFA, a charter school network founded by John Bryan.
But most of the questions this week focused on the qualifications of AAC, which was formed in February 2017.
An independent third-party evaluation by education consulting firm SchoolWorks said it's unclear whether AAC "is legally eligible to operate and manage" Southside Ashpole because state law says the company chosen must have a record of results in improving performance for low-performing students or schools.
The company plans to partner with TeamCFA, which has 13 charter schools in North Carolina. But SchoolWorks says TeamCFA's schools have "a mixed record of student achievement."
“I think they deserve better,” state board member Eric Davis said Wednesday before later voting against hiring AAC. “I think they deserve an operator who has a demonstrated track record.”
SchoolWorks rated AAC as meeting expectations in four of 11 areas. The other company vying for the contract, the Michigan-based Romine Group, was rated as meeting expectations in two areas.
Achievement For All Children's contract to run Southside Ashpole, about 115 miles south of Raleigh, will be for five years, but Hall has said it can be reviewed annually. Hall recommended hiring the company, prompting some state board members to say they're backing the decision because of their trust in him.
“I for one believe we’re at a point that we can take a calculated risk and go forward with Dr. Hall’s recommendation,” said board Chairman Bill Cobey. “I’m willing to stick my neck out on that.”
Due to the concerns raised, Hall said the contract will include stipulations such as addressing in 10 days the remaining concerns from the SchoolWorks evaluation. Hall will also have final authority in selecting Southside's principal and also the school's finances, staffing and curriculum.
The company's proposed budget calls for it to get $600,000 in management fees over the next five years.
John Bryan has contributed about $600,000 to legislative candidates in North Carolina, most of them Republicans, and GOP political committees from 2011 to 2016. Included is a $100,000 contribution to a group supporting GOP candidates for the state Supreme Court. He contributed $50,000 to a political action committee called Truth & Prosperity, set up to support Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
Forest, a member of the state board, voted for hiring Achievement For All Children.