Craig Harris of the Arizona Republic is part of the Polk Award-winning team that investigated charter school frauds, scams, and abuses.

This is the second part of an article in which he describes the mistreatment of students and the state’s failure to investigate complaints.

He writes:

“Charter and district schools are both publicly funded schools, but they are vastly different in how they’re governed.

“School districts have boards elected by local voters. Those boards hire superintendents who are responsible for personnel and policies. Board meetings are typically held at least monthly and are open to the public.

“Charter schools boards, meanwhile, are appointed by the charter owner, who in some cases is also on the board. Some Arizona charter schools have only two board meetings a year, each lasting 10 minutes. In some cases, a charter owner determines who is allowed to address the board.

“A Brown University study from 2014 found charter schools, in general, because of their autonomy face less scrutiny of their finances, and the lack of oversight has led to numerous cases of fraud across the country.

“Anabel Aportela, a research director for the Arizona School Boards Association who had a similar role with the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said members of district school boards are “accountable to their communities and voters in their districts,” but charter school board members are not.

“A bill advancing in the Legislature would change the governance and financial oversight of charter schools, but critics say it does not go far enough toward true, independent oversight.

“The proposed changes would not necessarily help a situation like the Georges’ because the bill does not guarantee parents access to a charter school’s board of directors. It also does not prevent a charter owner from stacking a board with friends and relatives.

“The bill has passed the Senate Education Committee and is working its way through that chamber.

“In Arizona, with minimal access to a local charter board to air complaints, typically the public’s only recourse is to appeal to the state Charter Board, an 11-member body mostly appointed by the governor.

“The Charter Board, with just 11 employees, is tasked with monitoring more than 500 Arizona charter schools. That means only a small fraction of complaints are investigated, The Republic has found.

“An analysis of 89 public complaints to the Charter Board from the past four years released to The Republicunder the state’s Public Records Law, showed only 12 percent were investigated. The rest were closed after the charter operator responded in writing, often denying the allegations.

“Among the cases that went without investigation were complaints of bullying, refusal to provide student transcripts, a 5-year-old boy leaving campus unsupervised, violations of the Open Meetings Law, failure to provide special education services, classroom temperatures being too cold, and a teacher cutting a girl’s hair without parents’ permission.

“In some instances, schools changed course following a complaint to the Charter Board. The student who was unable to get his transcripts from Arizona Call-a-Teen Center for Excellence obtained them after he filed a complaint.

“The state’s Charter Board not only investigates few cases, it also lets parents see little information about the complaints themselves. The Charter Board does not make public on its website the number of complaints against a charter school, nor does it post them online even though complaints are public record.

Viewing complaints requires submitting a formal public records request with the Charter Board. The wait for those requests to be fulfilled can be indefinite.

“Gov. Doug Ducey — following a yearlong investigation by The Republic that found widespread financial abuses, profiteering, and insider deals at charter schools — has proposed adding 10 additional regulators to the Charter Board. The additional staff could result in more complaints being investigated.

“Ducey’s office estimates the new Charter Board staff will more than quadruple the number of visits to schools to investigate fraud. Currently, just 15 percent of Arizona’s charter schools receive a site inspection each year to make sure a school is accurately reporting its finances and enrollment to the state.

The kinds of cases the Charter Board doesn’t investigate

“After a 5-year-old boy wandered away from Mesa Arts Academy on Aug. 15, 2016, while on “time out” his parents complained to the Charter Board.

“In its response to the August 2016 complaint, Mesa Arts Academy confirmed the child had left campus, and that police had been called before a staff member found the child. The school added it had since installed security cameras.

“The Charter Board elected not to investigate further.

“The Charter Board also took a pass when a 15-year-old girl at Heritage Academy Gateway said a male classmate put his hand under her shirt and groped her.

“The girl told her parents about the alleged incident in early September, and the parents notified the school. School officials, in turn, reported the incident to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

“The Republic typically does not disclose the identity of alleged victims of sexual abuse.

“The day after the incident was reported, the boy transferred from Heritage Academy to another charter school.

“The girl’s family said that allowed the boy, whose mother is a Heritage administrator and member of its board, to avoid discipline.

“According to the girl’s parents, the boy continues to visit the Heritage Academy Gateway campus every afternoon.

“Calls to Heritage for comment were not returned.

“The girl said the incident has caused her to see a therapist for anxiety.

“I don’t like seeing him on campus,” she told The Republic.  “It’s kind of scary to see him in that situation.”

“Her father said the family asked Jared Taylor, Heritage Academy’s charter holder, CEO and board chairman, to keep the boy off campus.

“It’s pretty little what we have asked for,” the father said in an interview.

“Records the school provided to the Charter Board in response to the complaint indicate Heritage Academy denied their request.”