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Legislation to oversee charter school CMOs not the way to go

Earlier this month it was revealed that D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan is suing Kent Amos, the founder of Community Academy Public Charter School, for diverting over 13 million dollars from the charter to Mr. Amos' for-profit charter management organization Community Actions Partners and Charter School Management LLC. The highlight of the legal complaint by Mr. Nathan is the allegation that the CMO in 2010 entered into a loan agreement to purchase a new LEXUS 460 sports utility vehicle. The car, registered in Mr. Amos' name, came with a monthly payment of $1,148. It had the specialty license plate KIDS.

Today, the Washington Post's Emma Brown reveals that the action by the Attorney General and the controversy regarding public money involving Options PCS has led the executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board Scott Pearson to begin working with the D.C. Council on legislation allowing the PCSB some limited oversight over the contracts both for-profit and non-profit CMO's enter into with charter schools. Ms. Brown points out that the board will also look at the manner in which schools strike agreements with “related parties,” which she describes as "school founders, school employees, members of the board of directors and their relatives." All of this is to be expected. However, I believe it is a dangerous path.

First, let me say that as someone who has been a board chair for a couple of charters in this town, I stayed away from entering into contracts with related parties. Although this is permitted by following particular guidelines, I just found the opportunity for conflicts of interest to arise too great to take the chance. Second, I do not conceptually understand how the Board can be given some authority to review CMO contracts that would not be dictating to these independent schools how they should be run. In theory this may be a good idea so that the PCSB can provide some direction over how public money is spent, but in reality I believe that this power would turn Mr. Pearson into the board of directors of 50 schools. Also, seeking a legislative remedy may open the flood gates for the Council passing other bills exerting control over charters.

There is a better way. We need to go back to the original concept of including a school's financial health into the Performance Management Framework. A section could be included grading best practices regarding the design of CMO agreements. When a school fails to meet certain criteria their score would be reduced. Unusual contractual terms, or those for which information is not available, would be referred for possible legal action.

The public schools have improved significantly over the last decade due to freedoms granted to the local charter school movement. Moving toward increased regulation of this sector can stop the progress our students so greatly deserve.