Wednesday, April 05, 2000

Ex-board member: Charter school regulations lax




BY JAMES PILCHER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As a voting board member of the Greater Cincinnati Community Academy, Dora Bronston felt obliged to follow every state regulation to the letter.

        And she says it was that desire that got her removed from the board by the same people who invited her to join; and her frustration grows with a perceived lack of action by state regulators.

        “I feel like I've been kicked to the curb for adhering to the policies of the contract,” said Mrs. Bronston, of Franklin, who was invited to join the board after helping work out the original charter. “And it's been almost three months, and nothing has happened.”

        GCCA lawyer Tom Martin rebuts Mrs. Bronston's claims that officials at the Northside school asked her to change documents, kept students for their funding only and that the school building was not up to code.

        But he would not discuss the specifics of her dismissal. It has been reported to state authorities, who are investigating but have yet to act.

        The dispute highlights what critics of charter schools say is a statewide problem — a lack of oversight by state officials who are stretched too thin to regulate the ever-increasing number of charter schools. Cincinnati, for example, is set to get three more this fall. There are now five with a total enrollment of 1,800..

        “We are not attacking the concept of charter schools,” said John Stanford, chief lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association.

        “There is a lack of accountability and a lack of resources for the department of education to adequately set up and monitor charters. And right now, the thinking is that it takes 180 days to close down a charter, and if there are serious problems with a school, that's too long for the sake of the kids.”

        Last month, the OSBA joined 11 other education associations to petition the state school board for more money for oversight.

        And just last week, the Legislative Office for Education Oversight released a 116-page report that concluded most of the state's first 15 charters did not send annual reports to parents last year as required by law.

        These “report cards” are to include how many students pass Ohio Proficiency Tests along with attendance and dropout figures.

        The report also found that most of the schools' directors were unfamiliar with their responsibilities for reporting such data to the state or to parents.

        Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Monica Zarichny said eight state regulators oversee 32 charters throughout the state — the others were created by and are regulated by local districts. The oversight department has an annual budget of $3.5 million.

        “We are discussing changing that right now and seeing if we can do more, or whether we have enough in place,” Ms. Zarichny said.

        Mrs. Bronston claims she was told to withhold board-meeting minutes until they could be changed to show that the school had made required progress on its facility.

        “My concern is for the kids,” said Mrs. Bronston, “because these people don't even know the guidelines that they had agreed to for running the school and are too vain to be told what the real rules are.”

        With 655 students, GCCA is the largest charter in the city. It is one of three charters which opened in Cincinnati this fall and one of 48 in Ohio.

        Charter schools using state funds but operate separately from local districts, giving parents an “alternative” to public schools.

        GCCA, which adjoins a church on Hamilton Avenue in Northside, was created to provide a private school atmosphere with public money, said the board president, the Rev. Lewis Hilton, pastor of Word of Deliverance Ministries for the World church in Forest Park.

        “We're doing our best to raise the level of achievement for a broad spectrum of kids from throughout the system,” the Rev. Mr. Hilton said. He referred all questions regarding Mrs. Bronston to Mr. Martin.

        The state has shut down two charter schools. International Preparatory School in Cleveland was closed in December after after fire marshals declared the building unsafe. And last month, Riser Military Academy in Columbus was closed after numerous complaints from parents over students being put out on the street and inadequate facilities that included portable toilets.

       



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