Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Notes on the Democracy Prep Fiasco

Jennifer Jordan for the ProJo:

(Democracy Prep NYC/Democracy Builders head Seth) Andrew’s spokeswoman said Friday that Andrew was caught off guard by news that the mayoral academies board had voted his organization out. Spokeswoman Kerri Lyon said that Andrew had planned to come to Rhode Island Friday “in good faith” for a mediation session at the state Department of Education between the groups, but canceled the trip when he learned of the split...

In a news release issued Friday morning, Cumberland Mayor Daniel McKee, who chairs the Mayoral Academies board, said the school would operate under the leadership of Jeremy Chiappetta, who has served as the elementary school’s principal.

In an interview, Mayoral Academies spokesman Bill Fischer said the sides were unable to agree to terms after Andrew requested more money to manage the school. Under the terms of the first agreement, Andrew’s organization received 10 percent of the school’s operational budget. For the school’s second year, he was seeking a higher percentage, Fischer said.

“The [school] board did not think the request was reasonable or justifiable,” Fischer said.

Andrew and his management team earned about $120,000 last year to run the school. Andrew’s payment would have increased to at least $200,000 for the current school year — at the 10-percent rate — because of enrollment growth.

According to Fischer, the sides had been negotiating over money since the first contract expired June 30.

The school’s board includes McKee, Lincoln Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond, state Rep. Kenneth A. Vaudreuil, D-Central Falls, and Dr. John Morton, who represents Pawtucket...

“[Mayoral Academies] has asked the department … to clarify several matters regarding the charter … and other issues regarding the operation and financing for the school,” Gist said. “These matters are currently under legal review, and we will not comment on these matters at this time.”

“We are confident we are in possession of the charter,” Fischer said.

Nobody does a good job here of explaining the role of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA) is in this governance structure. Here's my current understanding, from the top down:

  • Rhode Island Board of Regents: charter authorizer. Nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature.
  • Rhode Island Department of Education: executes the policies of and advises the Regents. The Commissioner is hired by the Board of Regents.
  • Rhode Island Mayoral Academies: a non-profit holding the charter for Democracy Prep Blackstone Valley (DPBV) and potentially other RI schools. The 11 member board includes one representative of the towns served by DPBV, only one other RI mayor, but does include Joe Williams from DfER and Ellen Winn from the Educational Equality Project.
  • DPBV Board: This is made up of representatives of the four feeder cities and towns. Note that Central Fall's representative Ken Vaudreuil was suppored by DfER in the last election and lost. Also, Central Falls is under receivership, and its mayor has been removed from office and is under an ethics investigation. Exactly what the role and powers of the school's board are is impossible to tell from a distance. Presumably it is in the charter, which doesn't seem to be available online. DPBV has no independent website, and finding anything on the RIDE website other than Deb Gist's smile is difficult. Do they have public meetings?
  • School administration and staff: necessary (unfortunately to some).
  • Democracy Builders: the charter management organization. Where do they fit in here? The first thing on the "What We Do" list for RIMA is "Attract great school operators." But it looks like the DPBV board kicked Democracy Prep out.

Who is RIMA accountable to and for what? They rated a prominent place in our Race to the Top application, based on successfully opening DPBV with a class of kindergarteners. Now we see one of their key roles in that process was a complete failure -- the operator they attracted is already leaving the school.

This to me looks like a great political structure as long as everyone at every level is already in agreement. I don't see how it will work over time. What if RIMA and the board of one of the schools whose charter they hold are in disagreement? How will that be resolved? Who is accountable for what? It seems to me that RIMA's real role is as a conduit for money, particularly from outside the state.

However, Andrew indicated the rift at least a couple of weeks ago, when he petitioned the state Education Department for an expedited review for a new school, called Democracy Prep Hope, he wants to open in Providence for the 2011-12 school year, serving students from Providence and Kent counties. The Hope school would open with 325 students in kindergarten through second grade and in sixth grade, eventually expanding to 875 students.

This application should be rejected for the insensitivity of the name alone. Hope High School's history in Providence is way to long, troubled and contested for this kind of appropriation. I'm not easily offended, and this offends me.

Also, would this be a non-RIMA mayoral academy or a regular charter?

Andrew submitted the application by the Dec. 1 deadline. The document states that since Democracy Prep would be ending its relationship with the Blackstone Valley school, Andrew wanted to offer those students the choice to attend his new school next year...

“There are a host of issues we will have to look at during this transition, including the actual name of the school, and we are in day one of that transition,” Fischer said. “We have thought, in particular, about a number of issues, including legal overtones.

“What we want to have is a clean and positive separation with Seth. And Seth will dictate the tone about whether we can separate in clean, positive manner.”

Pass the popcorn. Actually, the best part about this is that there is no particular reason to think the students will be affected one way or another by it. It's all about the adults.

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