Bill Phillis, retired deputy superintendent of the state department of education, is a zealous advocate for accountability and transparency. He has made a public records request about the Gulen charter schools in Ohio. He has written a multi-part series based on what he learned. This is Part 4.

Public Records and Charter Schools – Part Four: Buckeye Community Hope Foundation (BCHF)

According to its website, the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation “was founded in 1991 as a non-profit corporation with the mission of developing affordable housing for low-income families and individuals.” In 2005, the organization decided to expand its core purpose by becoming a charter school sponsor. According to an analysis completed by the Education Commission of the States, 44 states provide for charters by statute. However, only Minnesota and Ohio clearly allow non-profit organizations without a singular, core educational purpose like BCHF to serve as sponsors legally responsible for the oversight of these publicly-funded but privately-operated schools.

Since entering the charter school business, BCHF has become the sponsor for 47 schools, nearly as many as the ESC of Lake Erie West (ESCLEW), one of the original charter school sponsors in Ohio. Nine of these are Concept Schools operating under the Horizon Science Academy and Noble Academy brands. These schools are located in Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Lorain, and Youngstown.

Consistent with the public records requests sent to the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and the ESC of Lake Erie West, the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding (Ohio E & A) sent a letter on May 2 to the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation requesting comparable records for the schools it sponsors. But the reply on June 4 from the BCHF attorney was not unexpected:

“… The Buckeye Community Hope Foundation is not a public entity subject to public records requests. Other places you may get the records you desire are the Ohio Department of Education and the public schools themselves.”

In trying to inform the public about state policy and practices, along with reporting on the condition and needs of schools, it was regrettable, but also predictable, to receive this reply from counsel. Instead of dealing with one agency (ODE and ESCLEW), it was suggested that Ohio E & A deal with nine, along with the state agency, to get the information desired. Irrespective of the statute which allows BCHF to collect significant public revenue but use its non-profit status to be immune from responding to public records requests, legislators need to reexamine the statute and require more transparency and accountability from private organizations that benefit from public funds. We will examine this more in Part Five, the final segment in this series.

A final observation on BCHF and its stance on public records reveal that in fact, the public has to rely on ODE to provide the information about the Concept Schools that are sponsored by the non-profit. For example, we had to find out through records sent by ODE, not BCHF that the non-profit had to deal with the same type of issues in its Concept Schools as the public agency sponsor ESCLEW. When you have to find out information from another source when the first party says no, we are not required to do so, that is not reassuring.

The records available to us from ODE, and not BCHF, clearly demonstrate that it is up to the state education agency and, again, not BCHF, to inform the public regarding the operational condition of nine schools. The ODE records revealed a string of parent concerns regarding student expulsion, Individualized Education Program (IEP) issues, and a teacher complaining about one of the schools cherry-picking students in violation of standard public school admission practices. Again, it is not reassuring to find out about such issues through a third party – ODE.

In our final look in Part Five at the topic of public records requests and charter schools, we will make some recommendations about what we learned and what needs to be done regarding the charter school industry that will better serve the public.

William L. Phillis | Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding | 614.228.6540 ||