Experts: Charter operators need more than vision to succeed

The specifics of StudentFirst Academy’s startup troubles are unique, but the pattern is common enough that charter-school experts have a name for it: Founder’s syndrome.

The chance to start an independent public school attracts idealists who may chafe at traditional constraints. But running a school requires a complex set of business and educational skills, and flexibility doesn’t mean freedom from regulation.

“It’s almost like educational philosophy and educational management are two different skill sets,” said Terry Roberts, director of the Asheville-based National Paideia Center, which consults with schools across the country.

Roberts worked with StudentFirst founders Phyllis Handford and Sandra Moss on using Socratic seminars and other techniques. He said he was saddened, but not totally surprised, to hear the school was in trouble over financial, academic and management problems: “When charter schools go wrong, this is most often why they go wrong.”

If it were up to Roberts, he wouldn’t let school founders become administrators. Others don’t go that far but do say it’s essential for a charter’s board of directors to have the skill and will to oversee top staff.

Charter applications are reviewed by staff from the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, outside consultants with charter expertise, an advisory board dominated by charter-school operators and the N.C. Board of Education. Among other things, they’re looking for board members with the educational, business and legal knowledge to oversee a startup.

But in many cases, those members have been recruited by the person with a vision for the school. And if that founder goes astray, supporters may be slow to react.

“If it’s all hanging on one person, that’s a problem,” said Bryan Hassell of Public Impact, a Chapel Hill consulting firm that does research on charter accreditation.

As recently as September 2013, North Carolina officials approved plans that allowed founders to serve as board members and paid administrators. That was the case at StudentFirst, where the board held secret meetings that violated the state’s Open Meetings Law to remove Handford and Moss from the board and fire them as administrators.

But the Charter School Advisory Board no longer approves such arrangements, said advisory board member Cheryl Turner. Founders who want to run their schools must now give up their seats on the board of directors.

After charters are granted, monitoring and support are crucial. The state has added a “ ready to open” review in late spring for charters opening in 2014. Starting with 2014-15, the state has shortened the length of startup charters from 10 years to five, which the National Association of Charter School Authorizers recommends.

Reports of problems lead to state intervention before renewal time. Less than three months after StudentFirst opened, state charter-school staff demanded that the school’s board respond to complaints. State charter director Joel Medley said his office is watching the board’s efforts to restructure. The goal is to salvage a high-quality school, he said, but revoking the charter remains an option.

Since North Carolina started its charter-school program in 1997, the state has revoked 11 charters, mostly for financial and business problems. Another six were not renewed, and 32 have voluntarily closed in the face of problems.

Medley and outside experts agree: North Carolina’s rapid expansion is taxing staff capacity. Some states limit the number of charters that can be added each year; North Carolina does not. The state will have 157 charters by August, compared with 108 two years earlier.

“North Carolina went from zero to 100 overnight,” said Greg Richmond, president of the Chicago-based NACSA. “That’s a real stress on any system.”

Medley oversees four staffers who work directly with schools, and the NACSA is paying for a fifth. State lawmakers approved three additional positions that will be filled this spring.