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Chalkboard: Madison Prep accountability, governance issues face School Board

Chalkboard: Madison Prep accountability, governance issues face School Board

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Late last week I got an email from Kaleem Caire, Urban League CEO and champion of the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school proposal.

Caire was unhappy with the way I had characterized the latest version of the charter school proposal.

In a blog post following the Madison Prep board's decision late Wednesday to develop the proposed school as what's known as a "non-instrumentality" of the school district, I described this type of school as being "free from district oversight."

While it's true that the entire point of establishing a non-instrumentality charter school is to give the organization maximum freedom and flexibility in the way it operates on a day-to-day basis, I agree it would be more accurate to describe it as "largely free of district oversight," or "free of routine oversight by the School Board."

In his message, Caire asked me, and my fellow reporter, Matt DeFour from the Wisconsin State Journal, to correct our descriptions of the proposed school, which will be approved or denied by the Madison School Board in the coming weeks. 

In his message, Caire writes, "Madison Prep will be governed by MMSD's Board of Education. In your stories today, you (or the quotes you provide) say we will not be. This continues to be a subject of public conversation and it is just not true."

He continues, "State law requires that school district boards provide oversight to both non-instrumentality and instrumentality schools. The primary difference is who employs the charter school's staff. As an instrumentality, all staff are employed by the school district. As a non-instrumentality, all staff are not. That is the only difference."

Caire goes on to say, "As the 'charter school authorizer,' MMSD's Board of Education will own our charter contract and will be the entity responsible for ensuring we make progress towards our goals, including how we use the funds we receive from them. Madison Prep will have its own governing board who have autonomy to make decisions, but they will have to report annually to the Board of Education. Is the governing structure different? Yes. But governance and public accountability is greater for charter schools than traditional public schools. We can be shut down for failure to make adequate progress or effectively manage our resources. Traditional public schools cannot."

I think Caire makes a legitimate point and I'll revise my future reporting. Indeed, the School Board does, ultimately, have responsibility over Madison Prep, and, as he says, if it isn't successful in accomplishing its goals after five years the charter can be revoked. Furthermore, the school must provide a programmatic and financial audit on a yearly basis, which also brings a degree of accountability.

But when all is said and done, this model certainly proposes a very independent operation, with a very limited kind of involvement by the district. It's quite dramatically unlike anything every tried before in the Madison district, with a definite hands-off approach by the board and the administration. With the district limited to a narrow window of annual accountability, there are some important concerns to be discussed.

For example, what if there are questions about curriculum, student discipline or fiscal affairs in between the annual reports? How would a possible student expulsion, or significant parent complaint be handled? How closely will the district and Madison Prep and its governing board work on issues like these?

It will be useful to have such discussions openly, cordially and honestly, as the board and the public look to the district, the Department of Public Instruction and Madison Prep backers for answers in the coming weeks, prior to the School Board voting on Madison Prep's fate.

In the meantime, on Friday I asked if Superintendent Dan Nerad could give me a clarification on instrumentality/non-instrumentality schools.

Here's the explanation he provided through a long email message: 

"Initially, the most striking difference between the two models is the diminished district-based oversight of the day-to-day operations of a non-instrumentality charter school versus an instrumentality charter school. In MMSD, although the need for innovation is appreciated, there is substantial oversight regarding how each of the distrit's current instrumentality charter schools operates. There are partnerships between the schools and central office to ensure that district initiatives, including things like the strategic and equity plans, are reflected in the current charter school operations, while respecting the curricular innovations each charter school is implementing. Nearly all, if not all, Board of Education policies apply to all of the district's current charter schools.

"This is significantly different than the proposed Madison Prep model. Under the current non-instrumentality model, Madison Prep will be accountable to the board but not governed by the board on a day-to-day basis. The employees will not be district employees and, therefore, the district will have no authority to direct their work. Madison Prep employees will not be members of the district's collective bargaining units. Consequntly, the current CBAs will not apply. The district will have no control over how staff is hired. There will be no authority over how staff is compensated, evaluated or disciplined. Additionally, the district will not have the authority to direct curriculum, meaning the instruction occurring in the classroom on a daily basis will be outside the purview of the board and central office administrators. Madison Prep, in turn, will bear all of the responsibility for student achievement. The contract will explicitly define student performance expectations. Failure to meet the student performance expectations outlined in the contract could result in the termination of the charter contract by the board. Additionally, the general expectation is that most BOE policies will be waived for a non-instrumentality charter school.

"A non-instrumentality charter contract will define the amount of public funding Madison Prep can expect to receive in each year of the contract. Once they have received these funds, they will have full discretion regarding how to spend these funds. For example, they would set wages and benefits and determine how much to spend on facilities, contracted services, curricular services and professional development. Annually, however, they would be required to account for the public dollars spent. It is expected that any charter contract for a non-instrumentality charter school would include an annual audit. ... Unethical or illegal use of the funds would be a basis for contract revocation by the Board."

And, here, thanks to Caire, is a link the latest Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau's information paper on Wisconsin charter schools. He suggests looking at pages 4-7.