February 21, 2011

Meeting planned for charter school

A handful of parents have contacted the N.C. State Board of Education concerning the leadership of Carolina International School, which survived an embezzlement case in 2008 that nearly forced it to close.

A handful of parents have contacted the N.C. State Board of Education concerning the leadership of Carolina International School, which survived an embezzlement case in 2008 that nearly forced it to close.

About a dozen parents question how the current principal and assistant principal were hired for Cabarrus County's only charter school and how board of director meetings are run and documented under North Carolina's open records law. The group wants to start a dialogue with board members in hope to expand the school's board of directors and help prevent future problems.

"Either at the next meeting, or at a separate meeting, we will try to answer everyone's questions as best as we possibly can," said board chair Scott Elliott, who was asked to serve as chair by former director Richard Beall around the time of the embezzlement.

"I know it's frustrating for people sitting in the audience when the board can't answer questions as asked during their three minutes, but there are some legitimate questions and we'll do our best answer them with full disclosure," he said. "If there are mistakes in parliamentary procedure we are willing to go back and fix them."

The next board of director meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. March 10 at the school, 8810 Hickory Ridge Road, Harrisburg, but officials might move the meeting at Harrisburg Town Hall. About 50 people showed up at the meeting Feb. 10. People can sign up to speak the night of the meeting and will be allowed three minutes.

Elliott described the new staff selection process as "exhaustive," adding that it happened in a month's time because the board wanted to start the school year with someone handling administration duties. Mystica Nelmes became principal Aug. 4.

"We wanted someone with public and/or charter school experience, or someone with principal certification," said Elliott. "Nelmes has, and completed a principal fellowship program at UNC-Charlotte."

He also is open to expanding the board and said the board has asked various people in the community to join in the past, but he said because of tax liability issues stemming from the embezzlement, they have been hard to recruit.

At the Feb. 10 meeting, the board voted to increase payments to the N.C. Department of Revenue to pay off tax liabilities stemming from the embezzlement. The school will have federal and state debt paid off by June 30, he said, and the financial change could make it easier to attract board members, said Elliott.

The total debt from litigation fees, back taxes and interest from the 2008 embezzlement case reached upwards of $600,000, and the board of directors could legally have been bound to pay that debt had funds not been raised, said Elliott.

Charter schools receive state and local funds but are run by elected boards, independent of existing school systems. N.C. legislators are considering removing a cap on the number of charter schools in the state. The number is currently 100. The bill could also create an 11-member N.C. Public Charter Schools Commission to oversee the schools.

A group of about a dozen parents examined board minutes from the summer of 2010 that document the school's hiring of the principal and assistant principal. Elliott is documented as seconding his own vote to go into a closed session. Board member and science teacher Megan McNutt, who was marked absent for the July meeting, is documented as seconding Sam Leder's vote to go into a closed session. Neither of these items have been updated or amended on current meeting minutes found on the school website as of Feb. 18.

Concord attorney Sue Schneider's daughter is a sixth-grader at CIS. She wants the state to get involved to ensure the board and the principal are adhering to school bylaws, which include running meetings using "Robert's Rule of Order, Revised," an updated version of parliamentary procedure that dates back 200 years.

She about 10 other parents are asking the state to better police the charter school's meeting activity and help fully disclose the search process for finding potential principal and assistant principal candidates during the "relatively short" hiring process.

Some parents have contacted Joel Medley, North Carolina Area Charter Consultant at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, and Dotty Heath, regional consultant in the Office of Charter Schools in the department, and they say they are in the early stages of communication.

"It has to do with a lack of integrity of the process and the person, because the lack of the process overflows into the integrity of the person, the lack of the integrity of the selection process taints the integrity of the person and the board," said Schneider. "We just want to start an open dialogue and have full disclosure."

Because of these issues, the parents also want to know more about the school's financial background and old debt obligations stemming from the embezzlement case, Schneider said.

Schneider said issues like this could become important at the state level because legislation looms - Senate Bill 8, No Cap on Number of Charter Schools - to add more charters throughout the state, and she said she believes the state may not be equipped to adequately oversee the schools.

After the embezzlement case, Schneider and other parents say they think the board should be filled to its allowed 15 members, instead of the current six, to safeguard against future issues.

"Under the charter, if you fully staff the board, it will enable all committees to be fully staffed, and the problems will resolve themselves," said Schneider, who would consider being on the board but doesn't have plans to serve. Some other parents have expressed concerns about the recent departure of a sixth-grade teacher, the former director and a board member.

The school had faced struggles after Sandra Vielbaum, the school's former finance officer, in 2008 was charged and later convicted of embezzling $195,000, leaving the school in financial straits. The school was in danger of closing, as it faced a deficit of $400,000, but school leaders secured $380,000, with help from parents and loans, which allowed the school to remain open. Principal Nelmes and Elliot say that the school budget is in the best shape it has ever been and the school is on track to repay loans ahead of schedule.

Carolina International School is Cabarrus' only charter school and draws about 69 percent of its 445 students from Mecklenburg County, with the rest from Cabarrus, Iredell, Rowan, Stanly and Union.

"In the middle of all this turmoil, Carolina International has not lost its focus," said Nelmes in a recent e-mail. "We are still working diligently on our interdisciplinary curriculum, meeting student needs and making sure that teachers are still teaching. The administration and teachers are going to continue to value and build core relationships and interactions with our students and families who support us. We are a school of choice and want families here who want to help us be the best charter school we can be."

Nelmes, a 17-year area resident with a master's degree from UNC Charlotte, has been principal since Aug. 4. She was hired along with assistant principal Donna Harkey, who has a master's degree from Georgia State University and has taught at elementary, middle and high-school levels in Georgia and Cabarrus County. Nelmes said in a Feb. 11 interview that some parents questioned why she left Lake Norman Charter School after seven weeks. She said her departure was a mutual agreement.

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