Your Schools

The school boards you never see face big challenges in North Carolina

Tom Miller, a former Office of Charter Schools staffer who is now a leadership consultant, helps Thunderbird Prep administrators interview a teacher candidate.
Tom Miller, a former Office of Charter Schools staffer who is now a leadership consultant, helps Thunderbird Prep administrators interview a teacher candidate. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

These days the school boards that make headlines in North Carolina are often made up of people you’ve never seen on a ballot.

They’re the all-volunteer, self-selected panels that run the state’s 167 charter schools. In the last five years, their role in public education has mushroomed. They’ve created new opportunities for students, and they’ve spawned some troubling tales of failure.

“They’re in charge of a multi-million investment of public money, and for the most part they don’t have the skill set,” Tom Miller told me recently.

I got to know Miller as one of the state Office of Charter Schools staff charged with reviewing a flood of applications after the state lifted its 100-school cap in 2011.

But like many in the charter school world, Miller has stepped in and out of various roles: He was once a charter school teacher and principal. After leaving the state job last year, he started a consulting firm that counts two troubled Charlotte schools among its clients. He heads the Charter School Accelerator program for Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. And he’s a parent and board member at The Exploris School in Raleigh.

Miller shared some interesting numbers while I was reporting on state scrutiny of Thunderbird Preparatory School in Cornelius, one of his new clients. Thunderbird recently hired its third principal in as many years, and the process was so divisive that more than half the board resigned.

That may be extreme, but Miller says leadership turmoil is common in new schools. Of the 68 North Carolina charter schools that have opened since 2012, Miller says, only 35 still have their founding principals. Five closed in their first year – three of them in Charlotte – and several others continue to struggle with leadership, money and academics.

I’m actually sort of stunned that more don’t fail quicker. ... It’s the hardest thing in the world to do.

Charter pioneer Richard Vinroot

Miller outlined a start-up scenario that I’ve seen play out repeatedly: A charter board gets approval to open, but runs into trouble getting a building ready. As costs mount and uncertainty about the location drags on, enrollment falls short – by Miller’s tally, only 24 of those 68 new schools opened at full projected enrollment.

Fewer kids mean a smaller budget. The school’s debt escalates. And if the board can’t handle the strain, and/or the founding principal turns out to be a bad match, the school finds itself in a hole that’s tough to dig out of.

At that point, the skilled volunteers who could save the school often become wary of signing on, Miller says.

Richard Vinroot, a lawyer and a pioneer in North Carolina’s charter movement, agrees that today’s challenges are daunting.

“I’m actually sort of stunned that more (schools) don’t fail quicker. They really are sort of winging it,” he said. “They’re all well-meaning. The problem is it’s the hardest thing in the world to do.”

He should know: He was a founder of Charlotte’s Sugar Creek Charter School, which came close to being shut down after it opened in 1999.

Some would say the lesson is clear: North Carolina created this problem by approving too many schools too fast. Competition for students, board members and administrators is especially fierce in the Charlotte region, where several new schools have opened each year.

They get so stuck in the muck they make bad decisions. A lot of these schools don’t have goals.

Charter school consultant Tom Miller

Miller, of course, wouldn’t go there. But he says the increase in schools – and therefore, charter school boards – boosts the importance of getting governance right, as quickly as possible.

For the growing number of people who care whether charter schools thrive or fail, here’s what Miller, Vinroot and others with charter board experience say it takes.

Recruit the right mix

Ideally, board members bring skills in such areas as education, finance, law, marketing and fund-raising. They should be like-minded enough to work in harmony, but independent enough not to be head-bobbers. They need ties to the community being served, and to people with the connections to help the school succeed.

There’s no one formula for a successful board. At Lake Norman Charter, an established school in an affluent community, most board members have children at the school. At Sugar Creek, which serves an impoverished community, only one board member is a parent.

Focus on strategy

A governing board must have a strategic plan and stay focused on it, rather than getting snarled in what Miller calls “administrivia.”

He recalls a meeting where members spent 45 minutes talking about opening a checking account – something that could have been handled by staff – while avoiding the tougher question of how to make teacher salaries competitive with nearby school districts.

“They get so stuck in the muck they make bad decisions,” Miller said. “A lot of these schools don’t have goals.”

Trust but verify

Finding the right administrator is the board’s most important task. But that doesn’t always happen on the first try – and even a trusted staff leader needs to be monitored.

That means board members must scrutinize financial reports and other information that indicates how well the school is doing. Reports should be distributed well before the meetings start so members can arrive well informed. At Lake Norman, for instance, reports are put into a dropbox a week before the meeting.

I’d add that parents, employees and other key members of the public should remember their oversight role. Charter boards are required to hold open meetings and provide the same public documents as any other school board.

Seek support

Charter board members are required to take state training as part of the approval process. Since the cap was lifted the state has added a planning year, designed to ensure that schools are truly ready to open before the state starts cutting checks.

The N.C. Charter School Accelerator program helps selected startup boards with training, networking and financial support. Although its stated aim is to develop charter schools in underserved areas of the state, the program lists one Mecklenburg school that opened last year and three slated to open in 2017 among its participants.

Miller’s Leaders Building Leaders is among many firms offering expertise for a fee. From what I’ve seen, outside help can be crucial to new schools. But it’s a balancing act: Spend too much on consultants and there may not be much left for teachers and educational material.

Plan for succession

Charter boards aren’t elected, but they should have a clear plan for naming new members. Many post openings and invite applications. Current members should keep their eyes and ears open for people who might strengthen the team.

Charter boards that pull all the pieces together get the same reward as most public service jobs: They mostly go unnoticed. But the successful board members I know are OK with that. They’re happy to let their schools speak for them.

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