Politics & Government

In ‘ugly’ fight between a charter school and its operator, state board won’t take sides

A state advisory board is refusing to take sides in an ugly fight between leaders of a North Carolina virtual charter school and the for-profit company that’s paid millions of dollars a year to educate its 2,400 students.

N.C. Connections Academy wants state permission to no longer be managed by Pearson Online and Blended Learning, part of the international company Pearson that publishes textbooks and sells a wide range of education products.

After another meeting Monday punctuated by accusations from Connections and Pearson, the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board voted not to make a recommendation to the State Board of Education. The final decision rests with the state board, which if it rejects the request could cause Connections to close.

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable with helping the local nonprofit off the hook here,” said advisory board member Alan Hawkes. “I understand it’s a bad marriage and both apparently want to get out of it. But we had nothing to do with the marriage ceremony here.”

Connections Academy and N.C. Virtual Academy, which is managed by K12 Inc., both opened in 2015 in what was originally supposed to be a four-year pilot program ordered by state lawmakers.

Both online schools have received D grades for their academic performance for the past three years and are on the state’s list of “continually low-performing schools.”

Despite the poor academic results, state lawmakers showed their support for the two schools last summer by extending the pilot program to 2023.

Both Connections and Pearson have blamed each other for the school’s poor performance.

Connections’ board says it will be in a better position to serve its students if it’s fully in control of the operations. The school has an annual budget of more than $17 million.

The fight between the two sides has gotten bitter, with a lawsuit being filed. Monday’s hearing was a continuation of the hostile words used in March’s meeting that caused several CSAB members to say it felt like it was a divorce proceeding.

J.W. Ragley, vice president for state and strategic client relations for Pearson, charged that until recently Connections’ board refused to pay teachers for three months. He also accused the local board of stealing images from Pearson’s national television campaign to use on its school website.

“They actually put their teachers as a pawn in the midst of an argument between two groups over a contract, and we as the pay agent out of our own pocket paid for those teachers’ salaries and we’ll do so again if it happens,” Ragley said.

John Branch, Pearson’s counsel, suggested that the advisory board recommend that the state board order Connections’ board to resign as a condition of staying in the state pilot program.

Donna Rascoe, the counsel for Connection’s board, denied Pearson’s allegations. She said that the board simply delayed paying some of the invoices to Pearson until it got questions answered about how the money was spent.

“It is very troubling that Pearson would stand here and declare there’s a character problem,” Rascoe said. “It is fine to dispute particular things that have been done or not done. But it is troubling to suggest a character problem.”

After consulting in closed session with its attorney, multiple CSAB members questioned whether Connections could successfully operate without Pearson.

“Things have gotten as ugly as I’ve ever seen between an (education management organization) and a board,” said CSAB vice chairman Steven Walker. “Accusations being hurled around by both sides. They’re stealing our money. They’re stealing our pictures. They’re doing all this.

“I question whether the board can move forward. I hope they can. I hope they can.”

Walker had floated the idea of revoking Connections’ charter, but no vote was taken. He would later go on to call for a failed vote to approve Connections’ request. When the vote failed, it led to a separate vote not to take a position.

Several CSAB members said that they should stay out of it because the state board hadn’t involved them when the pilot schools were picked. It is unclear though how much of a role the advisory board would have had based on the legislation creating the pilot.

“Let’s keep our hands clean,” Hawkes said. “Let’s keep our integrity rather than intimating that we agree with this amendment.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.