Denis Smith is a retired school administrator who worked both as a sponsor representative for charter schools as well as a consultant in the state charter school office. In this five-part series, he offers his perspective about charter school governance and how this mechanism designed to provide transparency and accountability for public entities is sorely lacking and may in fact be the “fatal design flaw” of these schools.

Part Two

In September 2008, Dennis Bakke, the founder and CEO of Imagine Schools, one of the nation’s largest charter school chains, wrote a lengthy internal memo to his company’s regional directors that contained his candid views on the role and function for the governing boards of “our” schools, as he described the Imagine brand. The memo, which became widely known a year after it was sent by email to his key contacts within the company he founded along with his wife, Eileen, is quite revealing and offers a snapshot about how executives of private national charter school chains want absolute control of the “public” schools they operate. Due to its length, the memo is condensed within the following passage.

What are we learning about the selection and care of board members for our schools? Most Board members become very involved in the life of the school. Often, even before the school begins operation, the Board members have taken “ownership” of the school. Many honestly believe it is their school and that the school will not go well without them steering the school toward “excellence”. They believe they are the “governing” Board even if that adjective to describe the board has never been used by an Imagine School person. Many become involved in the daily life of the school, volunteering and “helping” teachers and other staff to get things done. Even those who are not parents, take “ownership” of the school as if they started it… [The board members] didn’t finance the start up of the school or the building. They didn’t find the principal or any of the teachers and staff. They didn’t design the curriculum. In some cases, they did help recruit students.

The complete text of this revealing memo is found at this link:

Bakke’s memo is important because it mirrors the thinking of national charter school chains as well as those who are managed by smaller for-profit management companies which may operate within a state or a regional basis. All control and direction for the school comes on high from corporate, and such constructs as school governing boards and local governance amount to distractions. Clearly, local control is an oxymoron to the Dennis Bakkes of the charter school industry.

The memo also makes it clear that no autonomy is expected of the boards which are chosen mostly by the company’s regional managers. While the best of our nation’s schools usually feature a collaborative model where teams of teachers work with school administrators, privatization of public schools that are operated by national chains seems to come only with a top-down approach, and any semblance of a governing board to provide guidance and oversight for the school’s operations is not to be tolerated in Bakke’s world.

In Ohio, the Revised Code treats a charter school as a school district, with its own treasurer, chief administrative officer, and governing board. But state law also allows great latitude regarding the operation and governance of the school, and current law requires that each school have a minimum of five board members, with no other qualifications stated in the law.

With such latitude, it should come as no surprise that the law is silent regarding the place of residency of board members, registration of the members with the secretary of state, citizenship requirements for members of the governing board, let alone how an appointed governing board member is obligated to represent the interests of the school’s stakeholders – students and their families.

In such loose legal construction, charter schools become the creatures of those who “own” them, rather than the public who pays for them and expects resident children to receive an appropriate education. Yet the charter school chains have it both ways. When convenient, the management companies refer to “public charter schools” and “schools of choice,” yet operate them in a manner that doesn’t accept the principle that the public owns the school rather than the corporation that operates the building. To add more complexity to the muddled charter school world, Imagine and some other chains also own some buildings as one way to add emphasis to their usage of the term “our” schools.

This flaw in charter school genetic code will, over time, be its undoing, for the American public is showing signs of increasing impatience with institutions, and like it or not, charter schools will not be immune from this impatience. In the end, charter school chains can’t have it both ways. If they believe the companies “own” these “public” schools, then surely the public will understand that the companies also “own” the boards. When the public fully realizes this state of affairs, the backlash against privatization will begin in earnest.

An owned or bought board is not characteristic of our democratic system. School governing boards were created to provide oversight, set policy, ensure that laws are adhered to, and hire and evaluate the school’s executive and financial officers. If charter school boards are not doing these things, they should be abolished so that the facade of faux governance is exposed. We the public can’t let national chains like Imagine have it both ways.