Some NC charter schools violate open meetings law

When Kathey Dailey asked about attending a charter school board meeting, she says administrators at her son’s school said those meetings were closed to the public.

They were wrong.

That school, StudentFirst Academy in Charlotte, is now fighting for its survival after allegations of mismanagement and financial irregularities emerged.

Among other challenges, two fired administrators sued the board of directors in February, claiming the board violated the N.C. Open Meetings Law by holding unannounced emergency meetings at a hotel and a member’s home.

Mecklenburg County has more than two dozen public school boards.

While Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools gets most of the attention, each charter school is run by a board that must follow the same state laws on open meetings.

Millions of dollars in public money and the education of thousands of students are entrusted to these boards. While many Charlotte-area charters encourage public participation, some don’t meet the legal requirements for posting meeting schedules, an Observer review of websites shows.

As the number of charter schools expands, with 11 more set to open in the Charlotte area in August, access and transparency become important for more people. Board meetings offer a resource to monitor whether a start-up school can deliver on its marketing promises.

“You need to show up to a number of meetings,” said Tony Proctor, a StudentFirst parent and a member of the Mecklenburg PTA Council.

Charter school boards, unlike their school-district counterparts, are not elected. They begin as self-selected groups of like-minded people with a vision for a school. First they must form a nonprofit group to apply for the charter; during the planning stage – which often takes more than a year – they are not public bodies.

That changes when the N.C. Board of Education awards a charter, which entitles the board to get state, local and federal money for education. With that money comes public obligations, from holding open meetings to reporting academic data.

Like all public bodies, charter boards can close meetings to discuss specific issues, including personnel and legal matters. They can also call emergency meetings as long as they meet requirements for giving notice. Any public body that has a website is required to post its scheduled board meetings.

The Observer could find no information about board meetings at the sites for five of 16 charters currently open in Mecklenburg County: Aristotle Prep, Crossroads High, Invest Collegiate, Kennedy and KIPP. Kennedy and KIPP list board members’ names, but the other three post nothing about a governing board.

Aristotle’s director said board information was on the school’s site but apparently got deleted during an update. Crossroads and Kennedy say they’re updating their sites and will add meeting schedules soon. Invest Collegiate’s head of school said the quarterly board meetings are posted at least seven days in advance, and the general schedule is listed in the school’s bylaws. A KIPP board member said the board is “in a transition phase” because new members have been appointed and a meeting schedule will be posted next month.

Only three of the 11 Charlotte-area schools that were approved in January – and will open in August – have meeting schedules posted. Two apparently do not have websites.

The N.C. Office of Charter Schools provides training to charter boards on compliance with the open meetings law.

Director Joel Medley said he and his staff look for board information on the website and remind schools of the requirement to post meetings. But Medley said some schools simply post notices on a bulletin board or send notes to parents.

Several Mecklenburg charters go well beyond those minimum requirements, offering biographies and contact information for board members, posting agendas and minutes, telling people how they can sign up to speak at board meetings and some even offer forms for people to apply or nominate someone for board membership.

Some board leaders say public participation, which tends to come mostly from parents and employees, is a good way to build trust and support.

“We are really putting it out there to try to get parents to our meetings,” said Bill Farber, chairman of the board at Lake Norman Charter School in Huntersville.

He said the board added details to its website after going through state training to clarify what’s appropriate for closed sessions, and has since moved its meetings to a room that holds more people. The board might get 40 or 50 parents at meetings when there’s a hotly contested issue, he said.

Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, a south Charlotte school for gifted students, relies heavily on parent donations to support its program. Openness in board meetings is a good way to encourage such investment, said board Chairman Brad Chatigny.

Metrolina’s annual budget meeting in June draws dozens of parents, Chatigny said.

“It goes until 2 in the morning sometimes,” he said, “and the parents are with us the whole time.”