State official: Check criminal records of NC charter applicants

N.C. Board of Education member John Tate called Monday for criminal record checks on charter-school applicants after reading an Observer article Sunday about problems at a recently authorized charter school.

Among the financial, academic and management problems detailed about StudentFirst Academy: Consultants reported that founder and head of school Phyllis Handford, who has since been fired, did not conduct a required criminal check on herself, her deputy and two of Handford’s family members who were on the payroll.

The Observer checked their criminal records and found that Handford had been found guilty in 2003 of misrepresentation to obtain unemployment benefits. The records say she was ordered to pay $1,628 restitution, $200 in costs and fines and put on 24 months’ unsupervised probation.

Tate, a retired banker and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member, said he emailed other state board members urging them to start requiring a check of criminal records for groups seeking charters, which authorize them to receive state, local and federal money for independently-run public schools.

“It just ought to be a common practice. In my opinion, you’re doing a favor to the process,” Tate said, adding that he believes such checks should also be done on members appointed to the state board and candidates for local school boards.

North Carolina has seen rapid charter-school growth since lawmakers lifted the 100-school limit in 2011. StudentFirst, located in west Charlotte and designed to serve low-income students, was among 23 approved to open in 2013-14, with another 26 approved for 2014-15.

Staff from the state Office of Charter Schools and members of the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board, who do most of the screening work, are starting to review 71 applications for 2015-16. Each application comes from a board of directors that forms a nonprofit group to run the school.

The final decision about who gets a charter comes from the N.C. Board of Education. So far, background checks on prospective board members have not been part of the process. Charter boards, however, are responsible for following the same background check process as the school district where the charter is located.

Tate said his proposal would not automatically disqualify people with criminal convictions, but it would give the state better information to make its decision.

In March 2013, the state board approved the StudentFirst charter, which included a startup budget of almost $3 million in public money. The approval is good for 10 years. Projections called for serving more than 400 K-8 students; current enrollment is a little more than 300.

Handford, who had created StudentFirst as a private school in 2001, and her longtime deputy, Sandra Moss, were founding board members and remained on the charter board when they became paid administrators. The Charter School Advisory Board recently stopped allowing charter staff to serve as voting members of the boards that employ them.

Handford was supposed to check criminal records for all employees, including herself. She and Moss were removed from the board and fired in December after the state Office of Charter Schools wrote to StudentFirst board Chairman Victor Mack demanding answers to a long list of complaints the state had received. The board hired Prestige Preparatory Schools Network to review the school’s finances and operations. Consultants detailed problems ranging from $450,000 in unpaid bills to $92,000 in undocumented spending to middle-school students taking long naps during the school day.

Handford and Moss are suing the StudentFirst charter board over their dismissal, claiming it was unlawful and done in secret meetings that violated the state’s Open Meetings Law. Details of the allegations against them became public when they were filed in response to the suit.

State charter school director Joel Medley said last week he wasn’t aware of the scope of the financial irregularities until a reporter asked for comment. He said he is seeking further explanation of how the public money has been spent.

The remaining StudentFirst board members have hired a new head of school and say they’re trying to create high-quality education for the remaining students, even though they can’t afford to deliver on promises made in the application. The state Board of Education could revoke the charter or demand changes.

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