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 Four


Previously, we looked at the legal duties of governing board members as they serve as stewards of charter schools. In their positions, these individuals are expected to perform the duties of Care, Obedience, Disclosure, Custodian and Diligence as they were detailed in yesterday’s column. While there have been far too many scandals associated with Ohio charter schools, one school in particular serves as the perfect model for examining the importance of governance and how this element remains as the critical design flaw or broken genetic code that may ultimately end or influence long-needed radical reforms to this costly experiment with public education.


The Cleveland Academy of Scholarship, Technology and Leadership Enterprise, or CASTLE, was founded for the purpose of serving high school students in Ohio’s second largest school district. But there was a major problem with the school that was there for anyone to see. The governing board president just happened to be a partial owner of the building which housed the school. Did anyone – other board members, parents, the school’s sponsor, state officials – see a problem here?


Ultimately, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor did, when in 2013, ten individuals associated with the school, including the school’s CEO, his brother, treasurer, board president and another board member were named in a 33-count indictment for corruption and the theft of nearly $2,000,000 of Ohio tax dollars.


At issue was the creation of thirteen shell companies that received funds for services that were not performed or otherwise documented. The board president, a part-owner of the building, also benefitted from school payments that were in excess of the stated lease amounts. Clearly the duties of Care, Obedience, Disclosure, Custodian and Diligence were violated in every way by the board and its retinue, and there was no knight in shining armor that defended this CASTLE nor anyone that served to protect the students or serve the public interest.


In examining the systemic conflicts of interest and atmosphere of corruption associated with the school and its governing board, state auditor Dave Yost framed the issue very clearly. “The rules are clear – you can’t be on both sides of the transaction,” he said. “In our schools, the top priority should be the children, not the pocketbooks of the administrators.”


For news coverage of this story and a link to the State Auditor’s report of CASTLE that led to the 33-count indictment by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, go to this link:


The murky dealings of the CASTLE board reminded me of several other experiences I had in assisting the public with finding out information regarding the operation of Ohio charter schools and their governing boards. One parent called to inform me that she had stopped by her son’s school and went to the office to find out information about the school’s board, when and where they met, and contact information for the members. She was told that the information was not available and then contacted the state department of education to ask if in fact a “public” school could refuse a parent such basic information.


In another case, a parent, upset with the lack of materials in the school, requested information about the salary and benefits for the school director. She was told that the information requested was considered proprietary by the school management company. When the school sponsor was contacted for assistance with the parent request, the management company gave the same answer.


Here’s what we have seen as part of this picture. Hidden boards operating in the shadows. Hidden salaries for school directors. Governing board members approving school payments and profiting from services billed to companies allegedly doing business with the school. National and state charter school chains determining who will represent them on the board rather than individuals who advocate for students and parents. What will be the scope of information that will be provided to school stakeholders and state oversight officials.


What’s wrong with this picture? Why have we allowed this to happen? Who is paying attention to what is happening to public schools as a result of the charter school experiment? Where do we start in cleaning up this mess? When will the public react to the sheer volume of issues created by hundreds of unregulated, ungoverned, and underperforming charter schools? How can these schools be fixed, if at all?


The who, what, when, where, why and how questions have now been posed. Unfortunately, complacent and compliant print and electronic media have not asked these basic questions about charter school issues that are part of reportage. The watchdogs – supposedly the media and perhaps the legislature – are not watching, nor are they hearing the sounds of growing discontent about deregulated education as represented by the charter school industry.


Tomorrow, in the concluding part of this series, we’ll look at some remedies aimed at providing needed safeguards that can improve school governance and better protect the public.