This is the last of the series of posts by Bill Phillis, which I have posted daily at 11 am. Phillis is a former deputy secretary of education for the State of Ohio. He is passionate about equity and accountability. He has been seeking public records about the Gulen schools and has largely been stonewalled. Schools that take public money and refuse to be accountable or transparent are not public schools.

He writes:

Public Records and Charter Schools – Part Five: Notes About Records, Privately Operated Schools, and Public Trust

Even before the FBI conducted raids in 2014 on Gulen charter schools around the country and the three within Ohio, citizens have been anticipating word of increased scrutiny and accountability for these schools. These raids also occurred at a time of citizen action, with a rally on the Statehouse steps and a march to the Ohio Department of Education by those who wanted a complete investigation of these schools.

Of the hundreds of pages of reports and summaries that were read by individuals assisting the Ohio Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding (Ohio E & A) in examining these records, one particular incident stands out. On July 15, 2014, this complaint was recorded in one of the reports. Details: Teachers had to assemble desks and chairs using Turkish instructions. The complaint was followed by this note. Sponsor’s Final Investigative Comment: This allegation does not show any violation of law.

Every public school in the nation has its own challenges, from parent complaints about expulsions, appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP) placement, building and student safety, and other issues that cause concern. However, a teacher report about classroom furniture being purchased, apparently with public funds, delivered with assembly instructions written in the native language of the school administrator, should have raised a red flag with the sponsors. In particular, the Washington law firm in its 2017 letter to the state superintendent raised the issue of alleged self-dealing. The 2014 teacher complaint may provide some insight as to whether those and other charges were adequately investigated by the state board of education.

The amount of time spent in examining these records was helpful in framing the issues that still linger about a group of schools that have a practice of hiring persons bearing visas rather than staffing those schools with fully licensed, qualified and available American teachers. But that is only one issue with these schools. There are a plethora of concerns that arise from examining these public records, and this series was designed to bring them to the surface.

We can only hope that citizens will soon insist on addressing these concerns directly to the Ohio General Assembly, the State Board of Education and to the sponsors of the Gulen schools, viz, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West (ESCLEW) and the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation (BCHF).

Here are the questions that all of these organizations need to address, and soon.

Why were these schools raided by the FBI? Has the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) and the sponsors shown any interest in encouraging a conclusion to this federal investigation?
In 2014, the Akron Beacon Journal investigated the governance structure of these schools. “Some board members — unlike traditional public school board members who cannot be elected without being registered voters — aren’t U.S. citizens, let alone registered voters,” the newspaper reported. Why is state law allowing charter school boards to be populated by non-citizens? Why haven’t sponsors insisted to the management company, Concept Schools that the practice of having non-citizens on so-called “public” charter boards is a burning issue with critics of these schools and should be ended?

News reports have shown that Concept Schools, the management company that operates these schools in Ohio, has applied major political influence in the Ohio legislature through the Niagara Foundation, another organization with Turkish ties. Several years ago, former Ohio Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and others were supplied with all-expense paid trips to Turkey. Rosenberger resigned from the legislature and is currently under investigation for questionable dealings during his time as a lawmaker.

A 2018 investigative report from one sponsor makes this statement: “The ESCLEW has verified the physical address of all governing authority board members to ensure that geographical locations have not interfered with attendance to the school or to governing authority meetings.” The report submitted by the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation contains that identical sentence, along with this: “No current members live more than 75 miles from the school.” How can these entities be considered “local” “public” schools when board members serve on a minimum of four governing authorities and may live nearly 75 miles from the school? Who appointed these board members, many of whom may be non-citizens? Also, what about ODE’s concern that some of these boards appear to meet at the same time and location? Where is ODE with this issue now, as expressed in the February 5, 2018 email included in the records sent to Ohio E & A? What are the sponsors doing about this, as they are charged with operating in the public interest?

As referenced earlier, a July 13, 2009 corrective action plan contained a statement that “It is Concept Schools’ policy that if an employee’s working visa application is denied by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Concept Schools will refund the expense of the application.” A more important question might be this: why are any tax dollars being spent at all to cover the cost of a visa application or even travel costs for a foreign national to be placed on a “public” charter school staff? Has the Auditor of State or any state official issued an opinion as to the propriety of using funds derived from public sources to pay such expenses? Where is the state on this? What is the opinion of sponsors as to whether reimbursement of such expenses meets the test of a proper public purpose?

Why is state law so lax that it allows charter school heads with no background, experience, and licensure in school administration to be responsible for the education of hundreds of young people? How is the idea of citizenship and community passed on to students who are housed in a building with a board and staff who may not have deep roots in that community or even attained citizenship status? Why don’t charter school sponsors provide leadership about this issue and by doing so force changes in state law and regulation?

Why do reports submitted by two different sponsors appear to have similarity in content, language, style, and conclusions reached about an investigation requested by the Ohio Department of Education?

The records reveal that one sponsor, the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, sponsors nine of the Concept Schools while the other, the ESC of Lake Erie West, sponsors the other eight in the chain that operates in Ohio. BCHF is a non-profit organization, and its attorney advised Ohio E & A that it did not have to comply with its public records request seeking information about these controversial schools. On the other hand, ESCLEW is a public agency and had to comply. Why is it fair for one entity to collect state tax dollars – representing about half of its operating revenue – but not have to assume the responsibility that the other agency, a public entity, had to bear in the same request? Why should any state resident accept that situation, particularly when it fell to ODE to be responsible for revealing some of its dealings with BCHF? Can the public be confident in being informed about correspondence and records held by a non-profit organization that were not otherwise also held by ODE as records?

A comparison of compensation between a charter school sponsor and a public school district superintendent might provide reasons for additional scrutiny of non-profit charitable organizations. According to the IRS filing by the Buckeye Community Hope Foundation for 2015, the total revenue from all sources was approximately $20 million. The head of its school division had a compensation package totaling $277,703.

By comparison, one of Ohio’s largest school districts has total annual revenue of about $900,000,000 but according to data provided by the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, no current Ohio school district superintendent has a compensation package of $277,000. The compensation package of school district employees is often headlined in the media. In the charter world, employee compensation is hard to find but when found is often alarming.

This week, we have tried to inform Ohio residents about lingering questions that surround a chain of 17 charter schools in Ohio, part of a larger nationwide chain of 167 schools that have extensive international ties, mostly to Turkey. It is our purpose to raise questions and hope that some responsible agency of state government will provide the appropriate level of guidance and direction to deal with the issues we have raised.

If any of the information raised here is of enough concern, we recommend that you contact your representatives in the state legislature and start asking some of the same questions that have been raised in the series. In doing so, such questions will continue to raise doubts about the legitimacy, transparency, and accountability of these publicly-funded but privately-operated schools that should exist for a proper public purpose, not for the private agenda of privately-operated entities.

Additional periodic posts regarding the Gulen Movement charter school and business enterprise are forthcoming.

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