Denis Smith retired from the Ohio Department of Education, where he worked in the charter school office and saw fraud after fraud. Ohio’s charter schools (which the state calls “community schools,” which they are not) are unusually low-performing; a large number are failing schools.

Smith wrote about the scandalous selection of the new state superintendent in the Ohio Capital Journal.

Smith writes:

At its May meeting, the State Board of Education voted to employ Steve Dackin as Ohio’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction. But the hiring of the veteran school administrator has raised some concerns that require further reflection.

The state board’s decision occurred in the middle of National Charter Schools Week and prompted questions about the processes used in the appointment and the search that led up to the board’s action.  

To those familiar with the behavior of some charter school boards, where the members are usually hand-picked by the school’s operating company and where tales of conflicts of interest and self-dealing are legion, the state board’s action will need to be more closely examined lest it acquire the same reputation of so many conflicted charter school boards.

In covering the search process and appointment of a new state superintendent of schools, the Cleveland Plain Dealer summarized the situation succinctly:

“Steve Dackin was vice president of the State Board of Education and led the search for a vacant superintendent position before resigning and applying for the job three days later. The deadline to apply was the following day.”

You don’t have to read that Plain Dealer paragraph again to realize there was something wrong in the practices of a state board that allowed a board member to conduct the search for a superintendent, resign so that he could apply at the deadline for the position, add his resume to those already received from other candidates, and then months later be hired for the very position he oversaw as vice president of the board and head of the search committee that was charged with filling the position.

If a public board is concerned about optics, its actions might demonstrate that in addition to suffering from myopia, it’s also tone deaf as shown by its hiring of the new state superintendent.

Catherine Turcer, who directs Common Cause Ohio, an organization which promotes “transparency and accountability in government,” also examined the process that led up to Dackin’s candidacy and had concerns.

“The thing that’s important about this is that we have as much transparency as possible so that we can understand what happened and whether he was attempting to get himself the job inappropriately,” she said. “Right now, we have a lot of questions and things look odd. It’s not enough to do the pro forma, ‘I put my resignation in before I applied.’ You dotted one ‘i’ but what about all the ‘t’s?’ she told the Plain Dealer.

The appointment of a new state superintendent during National Charter Schools Week drew praise from the state charter school lobby, including kind words from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an organization that promotes these publicly funded, privately operated, underregulated entities and, like the schools it promotes, is conflicted in its purposes. That makes Fordham a comfortable and perfect fit in the midst of charter world.

The conflict that is Fordham was described last year in the Ohio Capital Journal. Fordham serves simultaneously as a charter school authorizer, promoter, and so-called “think tank,” crafting studies that unsurprisingly promote public school privatization, which it calls school choice. But with all of its “think tank” research, apparently Fordham hasn’t studied one of the major design flaws in charter schools. 

That flaw doesn’t allow the democratic election of board members by qualified voters in a community. Instead, in many instances we have seen self-dealing by hand-picked board members, conflicts-of-interest by operators, and all of the ethical issues that surround organizations that are not fully transparent in their operations. 

The most classic example of this was seen several years ago, where the chairman of a charter school board was also a part-owner of the company which owned the building where the school was located. The school made an overpayment of $478,000 to the company without any board approval. A number of individuals associated with the charter school were indicted, including the school founder, his wife and brother, the board chairman and school treasurer.

Which brings us back to the recent action of the State Board of Education in choosing a new state superintendent.

Because of a history of scandal in the state charter school industry, where more than $1 billion in public funds alone went to ECOT in the largest online charter school scandal in the country, and where the wreckage of more than 300 closed Ohio charters have further depleted the state treasury due to lax oversight caused by few controls, the State Board of Education itself should not be acting like a challenged and conflicted charter school board with few rules, policies, or any sense of institutional memory. 

Moreover, the enthusiasm for Dackin’s appointment expressed by the charter school industry and the Fordham Institute should also raise even more concerns.

As someone who has experience in providing oversight of charter schools as well as service on non-profit boards, it is my view that the processes used in the Dackin appointment are troublesome. For example, some boards have policies that require at least a one-year separation by a board member before applying for employment with the organization. Such a board policy protects an organization and lessens the possibility of a conflict or self-dealing situation by any member. 

And what about the State Board of Education? Why isn’t there policy which prohibits the employment of a former board member for an extended period of time after separation from the board? For that matter, are there any state boards that have a “time-out” policy before a board or advisory committee member seeks employment?

The Ohio Ethics Commission and its three-page review of the situation before the state board’s hiring of the new superintendent was, to put it mildly, inadequate for the circumstances in the Dackin situation. The appearance of a conflict of interest or any ethical question related to actions that employ past board members recently separated from a public board should be a serious issue.

There is no doubt that the State Board of Education can do better at policy formulation and practice. So too can the Ohio Ethics Commission, which should start a discussion about strengthening its guidelines to go beyond minimalist interpretations of statute and offer more robust models to boards and public agencies that promote greater transparency and accountability. 

After all, a state public board by its actions should not mimic charter school boards that love to receive public money but hate regulation.