I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Charter Operators Are Buying Our Politicians

If there's anyone still out there trying to make the case that charter schools really are public schools, answer me this: why are so many politicians trying to exempt charters from the same oversight provisions as publics? [all emphases mine]
A controversial proposal that would deny public access to records of private managers of charter schools has surfaced again in the Pennsylvania legislature after it was rebuffed during the summer. 
Disagreement over the proposed exemption to the state's Right-to-Know law was one of the reasons that a package of charter law changes submitted in late June was shelved until this fall.
The proposal was part of a 53-page amendment inserted into a special education funding bill in an effort to get the charter changes passed along with the budget. 
It says the Right-to-Know law applies to charters, "except records of vendors of local agencies shall not be accessible." Charter schools are listed as local agencies in the Right-to-Know law. "Vendors" would include private management groups that run charter schools. 
Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester) said last week that the House Republican leadership wants to include the same language in charter law changes being discussed again this fall. Dinniman called on the Senate to reject the proposal, as it did in June. 
The proposed package of charter law amendments, which includes a series of accountability measures for the schools, "purports to promote greater transparency for charters," Dinniman added. But "at the same time, it would destroy transparency with this language. The public has the right to see where its money goes. Every legislator should support that." 
Rep. Tom Killion (R., Delaware), the author of the proposal, said he did not intend to create a sweeping Right-to-Know exception. 
"If a public dollar is involved, the records should be open to the public, but not beyond that," he said. His main intent, Killion said, was to make sure that if a charter vendor has "another business, that should not be covered" by the law. 
But lawyer Michael Berry, the vice president of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, an open-records advocacy group, said the proposed exception could "gut" the provisions pertaining to charter managers and contractors with local governments and other local agencies. 
"When you take away the ability to scrutinize contractors of public agencies, you take away . . . the ability to have oversight of these agencies and to understand where their money is going and how the public is or is not benefiting from that," he said.
Killion's argument is ridiculous on its face: if a private contractor, acting as a state agent, is using public funds, the public has a right to know how they are spent. If you can't stand the scrutiny, run a private school - which, increasingly, is what charters are turning out to be.

Now, why do you think a Republican legislator is pushing this stuff? What motivates these fine public servants? Well, go back to July, when this piece of garbage disguised was a bill was first introduced:
For over six years the owner of Charter School Management Company, under contract to run the state’s largest brick and mortar charter school in Chester, has fought just such a right-to-know request in the courts.  The case is now apparently headed to the state Supreme Court.  That individual just happens to be the largest individual campaign contributor to Governor Corbett and a major donor to the GOP.  He reportedly was recently able to purchase two beach front lots in Palm Beach Florida for $29 million and is building a new 20,000 square foot residence there.
That's right: the PA Republicans are doing the bidding of Tom Corbett's biggest supporter (h/t to the great Keystone State Education Coalition for making the connection). Of course, Corbett has been reluctant to hold charters to account, dating back to before he was the governor.

The owner of CSMI is an upright citizen named Vahan Gureghian. CSMI is currently running Chester Community Charter School, Pennsylvania's largest charter, and the current source of the fiscal woes of the infamous Chester-Uplans district. CCCS is in hot water over a brewing test cheating scandal:
The 2012 test scores and the continuing investigation of the school for test irregularities are bound to renew long-standing questions about the school's management fees and the veil of secrecy over how much profit Gureghian is making from the charter.
Bond documents and court filings show that CSMI's contract with the charter called for it to be paid $5,873 per student last school year, and an even higher per-student payment - $6,445 - for 2012-13. That totaled more than $17.6 million due last year to CSMI. That is more than the school spent on instruction and more than a third of the school's total expenditures of $46.8 million. 
In 2010-11, the latest year for which figures are available, the school spent the highest percentage of any district or charter on business expenditures, a category that includes the management fee, while spending the eighth-lowest percentage in the state on instruction.
Crawley said the management company performed far more services for the school than most do. CSMI, he said, is giving school employees "what they need to provide a quality education for these kids."
CSMI has refused to disclose how much of its fee is profit.
Well, why should they? Especially if they can get their cronies in Harrisburg to push through this new law, which would pretty much close their books to the public forever.

Oh, and what about Killion's contention that he's just trying to protect CSMI's "other business"?
The management fees are not all that Gureghian has received for his work at Chester Community. In 2010, he was paid $50.7 million for the purchase of the charter school's buildings by Friends of Chester Community Charter School, a nonprofit group formed to purchase the property and support the charter.
Gureghian had originally paid for the buildings' construction; a spokesman said the cost to build them was about $50 million.
Gureghian also received more than $20 million in rent for the charter-school buildings, before he sold them.
The 2010 purchase of the school buildings was financed by $57.4 million in bonds issued by the Delaware County Industrial Development Authority, an agency that underwrites bond issues for a variety of public financing purposes.
Even if all that's true, it's a 40% return on his original investment, all financed by the Pennsylvania taxpayer. Nice work if you can get it. Would this be considered one of CSMI's "other businesses" and not subject to scrutiny?

Susan Ohanian applies her characteristic wisdom to this and puts it all together:
By law, Pennsylvania taxpayers cannot get an accounting of how Gureghian spends the dollars he receives for managing Chester Community Charter School. 

Think about some public school children living in poverty in the Chester Upland school district: 

Stetser Elementary: Students eligible for free and reduced lunch = 94% 

Main Street School: Students eligible for free and reduced lunch = 92% 

Columbus Elementary: Students eligible for free and reduced lunch = 82% 

Consider the 30,600 square feet of Gureghian's French-style mega-mansion nearby. It features 10 bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, four wood-burning fireplaces, a two-lane bowling alley, a wine room, a media room, several bars, a "great hall" that can hold 200 guests, and a moat. . . . "The guy has lived out the American dream. I think it's fantastic," said Shanin Specter, a neighbor and son of Republican U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter. 
Thank you, Susan, for remembering to call Specter a "Republican." People tend to forget.
Now, in Palm Beach, Gureghian has purchased 1071 N. Ocean Blvd. and the lot next door for a combined $28.9 million-- with the plan of building a 20,000-square-foot mansion, complete with a two-lane bowling alley in the basement. Here is a picture. 

Maybe the money for all this came from billboard management. 

Maybe not. 

Taxpayers aren't allowed to see an accounting of how their tax dollars collected for public schools were spent. 
 Brava, Susan. Oh, and Jersey readers? Guess who was trying to bring this nonsense to Camden?
The Camden school board is reviewing proposals from three organizations with track records for educating children in struggling urban districts that seek to open up to a dozen new charterlike "Renaissance" schools.
The proposals - the first of their kind under consideration in the state - could divert millions of dollars and nearly 40 percent of Camden's student population into privately run public schools. 
[...]
The third proposal is for a Benjamin Franklin Academy in North Camden. One of the project's partners manages the largest charter school in Pennsylvania and is owned by local GOP power broker Vahan Gureghian, a major contributor to Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett's campaign. Corbett has praised Gureghian's school, which the state is investigating for possible test score cheating. 
[...] 
The newly incorporated nonprofit Benjamin Franklin Academy was established in June by some of the same people behind the proposed Camden Community Charter School at Eighth and Linden Streets in North Camden. 
If approved, the academy would take the place of the charter school, originally scheduled to open in September but now granted a planning year by the state. 
The academy hired CSMI of Chester as its management company to provide staffing and other services. CSMI also has been working on behalf of the Camden Community Chester School to acquire the vacant land, which the Camden Redevelopment Agency owns. 
CSMI is the for-profit educational management company headed by Gureghian, a founder of the Chester Community Charter. 
That school has staunch supporters but has also been the subject of a fair deal of controversy.
Yeah, I'd say that last sentence is the understatement of the reformy year so far. Hey Camden and all NJ taxpayers: how would you like to bring a private company with CSMI's record into the state?

Luckily, the Camden School Board stepped up and stopped this. But they can be overridden at any time by NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf, a former private charter operator himself. Gosh, how will he rule, I wonder...

People of Camden, you're being set up to become another Chester, PA.

People of America, you're just being set up. If you're not outraged at this point, you just haven't been paying attention. Your politicians are being bought up by corporate education vultures just like they were bought up by defense contractors and tobacco companies and oil companies and Wall Street. If you don't stand up, right now, and demand that these people show total transparency, you are going to lose your public schools.

Don't let these people's righteous indignation fool you. Don't let the wishy-washy sentiments of the "moderates" fool you. The corporate reform agenda is quite clear.

The only question left is whether you are going to believe them or your own lyin' eyes.


ADDING: Oh, my. Look who poured $10,000 into the South Jersey Democratic political machine - the powers behind the Camden Hope Act charters - in the last election cycle. Why, it's Pennsylvania Republican Vahan Gureghian!

Gosh, you don't think he was looking for any favors, do you?

1 comment:

keith walker said...

Well, I can't speak for Pennsylvania, but at the state level in New jersey, the democrats and republicans work well together (at least when it comes to exploiting and disenfranchising the under-enfranchised poor and minorities in cities like Camden.

The big cheese behind the shenanigans in Camden is democrat political boss, George Norcross, III. He has a willing ally in Gov. Chris Christie, to the extent Christie abandoned republican candidates in Camden County during the height of state elections,so he could gain favor with the notorious Norcross.

The bottom line is, the charter school movement is not about educating the poor, it's about redistributing wealth and allowing Wall street and corporate entities to tap into the last pool of public sector dollars..., public school funding.