In the late 1990s, Dave Machado was a Lincolnton tire dealer with no expertise in education.
His wife told him people wanted to create a charter school nearby, but he had little interest. The concept was new to North Carolina, and Machado thought his children’s public schools were fine.
The ensuing years brought big changes for Machado and North Carolina. He not only bought into the charter school movement but spent the last 11 years running Lincoln Charter School.
And he recently left that job to become the state’s top charter school official, charged with overseeing the rapid expansion of charter schools that has reshaped the face of public education in the past five years.
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As director of the Office of Charter Schools in Raleigh, Machado oversees the education of roughly 100,000 students, monitors hundreds of millions in public money and acts as chief watchdog over his former colleagues.
He arrives at a time of turmoil for charter schools in the Charlotte region. A judge is weighing a lawsuit over the closing of one Charlotte charter school, while a state panel recently asked Machado’s office to intensify monitoring of another Mecklenburg school that has been threatened with closing.
And six new schools are set to open in the region in August.
“It’s a very difficult job to be in. He’s walking in at a time when there’s a lot going on,” says Cheryl Turner, head of Charlotte’s Sugar Creek Charter School and a member of the state Charter School Advisory Board.
I think he is someone who sees the big picture and will hold schools accountable when they need to be.
Shannon Stein, managing director of Lake Norman Charter School
Mike Owen, a longtime friend from Lincolnton, cites Machado’s time as president of the Lincolnton Optimist Club sports program as a sign that he’s up to the task. That job required Machado to handle disputes between parents and coaches.
“He has thick skin and a fair mind,” says Owen, executive director of the Lincolnton Housing Authority. “If anybody can handle that kind of situation, David can do it.”
At 62, Machado (pronounced ma-SHAH-doh) describes himself as a Reagan Republican who’s no longer involved with politics, a businessman who surrounds himself with strong educators and a man who loves a challenge.
He and his staff are charged with reviewing applications for new charter schools and monitoring existing ones for compliance with academic, financial and governance requirements. His staff brings information and advice to the Charter School Advisory Board and the state Board of Education, which hold the power to grant or withdraw public funding.
From his vantage point in the Lake Norman area, Machado has seen plenty of action up close. Since the state lifted a 100-school cap in 2011, 17 schools have opened in the Charlotte region, roughly doubling the number that serve Mecklenburg students. And five have been forced to close, three of them in their first year.
“I want to make sure that we only approve schools that have strong applications,” he says. “I would also like to help them get strong leadership. If one charter school fails, it tends to publicly look bad on all charter schools.”
Machado had lived in Lincolnton since his parents moved the family from Buffalo, N.Y., when he was 16. He got a degree in business administration from Western Carolina University, then followed his dad into the tire business.
In the late 1990s, some Lincoln County residents joined the first wave of North Carolina charter school applicants. The group won approval to open two K-8 schools – one west of Lincolnton and one about 22 miles east, in Denver – with plans to eventually build a high school between them.
At the time, lawmakers had agreed to limit the state to 100 charter schools. Lincoln Charter was the only one authorized for twin campuses before the law was clarified to stipulate one school per charter.
I wasn’t interested in having our daughter go to charter school. I was very happy where she was.
Dave Machado’s first reaction to plans for Lincoln Charter School
Machado’s wife, Robin, liked the promise of smaller classes and a rigorous college-prep curriculum, he says. Their daughter, Loren, enrolled as a fifth-grader at the Lincolnton campus when it opened in 1998.
Dave Machado may have been lukewarm going in, but he’s not the type to sit on the sidelines. He began volunteering, was soon elected to Lincoln Charter’s governing board and chaired it for four years.
In 2002, after Machado had sold his business and left the board, Lincoln Charter needed to recruit a new principal for the Denver campus. The board asked him to serve as interim principal. He ended up staying, and in 2005 he was named chief administrator for both campuses.
A growing movement
Lincoln Charter School’s vision morphed over the years. Plans for the midpoint high school were scrapped; both campuses are now K-12. Their combined enrollment of about 1,900 last school year made Lincoln the state’s largest charter school.
With long waiting lists, an active construction program (the Lincolnton campus recently opened a 54,000-square-foot middle-high building) and strong academic performance (the school earned a B in 2015, with 83 percent passing exams), Lincoln built a reputation as one of North Carolina’s charter success stories.
It’s a trial by fire.
Joel Medley, former director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools
And those charter pioneers have been joined by a crowd of new schools, a movement that has brought opportunity and controversy.
In Raleigh, political clashes have emerged between people who believe charter schools sabotage traditional public schools, those who want rapid charter growth and those who want more restrained expansion.
The state’s Office of Charter Schools is often caught in the crossfire. The office was recently removed from the Department of Public Instruction, which some lawmakers view as unsupportive of charter schools, and now reports directly to the appointed state Board of Education.
For five years in the thick of that change, Joel Medley headed the office. In 2015 he quit to take a job with N.C. Virtual Academy, one of two online charter schools launched that year.
Medley understands better than most the challenges his successor will face: “It’s a trial by fire.” But he says Machado has integrity, charter school experience and the ability to deal with difficult situations, and that should serve him well.
“I think Dave is a good man who has a lot of integrity,” Medley said.
Machado says fellow charter school directors encouraged him to apply for the state job. The state Board of Education hired him in February, and he has found a new home in north Raleigh.
While the move meant leaving his longtime Lincolnton home, Machado remains on familiar turf. Both of Machado’s children went to N.C. State University, and his son, David Aaron, lives in Raleigh.
Machado has no education degrees and no experience in political posts, beyond chairing the Lincoln County Republican Party in the 1980s. But he says he brings a record of leading a successful team.
“I will do what I’ve done here and rely on my excellent staff,” he said.
I’m a strong believer in controlled growth: Controlled growth in a school, controlled growth in the charter school population.
Machado describes himself as a proponent of controlled charter growth, fair funding and partnership with traditional public schools. He wants his office to do a good enough job of screening applicants and supporting new schools that there won’t be a need for closings.
That means helping new schools and the parents who choose them understand that there will be limits on what the school can provide in the early years, he says.
“They can’t be everything to everybody. They need to do what they can do very well,” Machado said. “The families that take a chance on a starting charter school, they’re really the pioneers that need to be congratulated.”
But Machado says recent closings are not entirely a bad thing: “If a charter school fails then the system’s working, because we’re not going to keep bad schools open. I think that is important.”
Machado has been in the audience at Charter School Advisory Board meetings since he was hired, but June 30 marked his first meeting as charter school director. The panel was discussing problems at Thunderbird Prep, which is just across Lake Norman from Lincoln Charter’s Denver campus.
Machado listened quietly while his staff and other state employees reported on parent complaints and financial problems. The advisory board rescinded an earlier vote to recommend closing Thunderbird, but mandated intensive monitoring in the coming year, including surprise inspections by Machado’s staff.
After the meeting, Machado introduced himself to Thunderbird leaders.
“We’re not here to bust you,” Machado said. “We’re here to help.”