Mecklenburg commissioners question charter school oversight

Mecklenburg County taxpayers will be required to invest more than $30 million in charter schools next year, yet county officials have no control over how that money is spent.

That was a source of frustration for several county commissioners Tuesday, when they got a briefing on charter school finance and regulation from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators.

“I just don’t have any confidence in the (state’s) oversight,” commissioner Dumont Clarke said.

Charter schools are run by nonprofit boards authorized by the state to get government money for public education, with more flexibility than school districts have in hiring, pay and school management. School districts are required to pass along a per-pupil share of county education money for each student attending charter schools.

That has been going on for almost 20 years, but a surge in charters has driven up public investment and interest. The county pass-through for charters has doubled in the last five years, from $12.5 million in 2008-09 to about $25 million this year, CMS officials said.

Next year, with 11 new charter schools authorized to serve Mecklenburg students, CMS projects that there will be 143,666 students in CMS and 13,586 Mecklenburg students in charter schools. If the county held education funding flat at $356.5 million in the 2014-15 budget, the charters’ share would come to $30.9 million. If it increases by $40 million, CMS officials said, the estimated charter share would rise to $34.3 million.

Commissioner Karen Bentley noted that the increased spending is caused by more families choosing charter schools.

“What we all need to remember is that the parents and the guardians are the ones driving this data that we’re looking at,” she said. The proliferation of charter schools, especially in and around Mecklenburg County, “tells us a story, and we need to understand what that story is,” she said.

No charter school representatives spoke at the meeting, which was held to prepare for crafting next year’s budget. CMS has not yet made its budget request to the county.

Several commissioners said they believe some local charters are doing a good job of educating children and spending public money. But they raised concerns about some aspects of the charter boom, which began when the state lifted the 100-school limit in 2010.

Clarke said he was dismayed to read Observer articles about StudentFirst Academy, a Charlotte charter school that experienced financial, academic and management problems shortly after it opened in August. Earlier this month, members of the StudentFirst board told the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board that the school has run up $600,000 in bank loans and overdue bills and expects to repay that money over the next 2 1/2 years using county money. The advisory board will vote next month on whether to recommend closing StudentFirst next year.

Clarke said he’d like county commissioners to go on record urging the state to revoke the charter.

“I’m like, ‘This is a bailout.’ How effective can the oversight be if the charter school can get into so much trouble so quickly?” Clark asked. “What about those kids? It seems to be a terrible waste of tax dollars.”

Commissioner Vilma Leake said she has concerns about for-profit companies operating charter schools. She said she was also disturbed by reports that the N.C. Department of Public Instruction contends that charter schools don’t have to disclose salaries like other public schools and public bodies must. “The public has a right to see the salaries,” she said.

Commissioners’ Chairman Trevor Fuller asked if commissioners could withhold money for charters if they’re not assured that the money is being well spent. County Attorney Marvin Bethune said there’s nothing in state charter law to allow that.

Commissioners took no action Tuesday. Several said their best option is to talk to state legislators about improving the charter system.