Thirteen charter school applications have gotten nods of approval from members of North Carolina’s charter school advisory board (CSAB), which completed a months-long review process this week. Contingent on the State Board of Education’s approval in May, the recommended charter schools could open in the fall of 2017 and bring the state’s total number of charter schools up to 171.

Twenty-eight charter school hopefuls applied to open in 2017. Of those, three were withdrawn during the review process, eleven were denied and one school—Next Generation Academy—resulted in a tie vote, leaving it up to the State Board of Education to decide if that school could be added to the list of charters that will set up shop in North Carolina next year.

Five of the thirteen recommended charter schools plan to locate within Charlotte or close by in Gaston County—an area already highly populated with charter schools. Wake County could see two more charter schools in 2017, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth could get two more charters as well. Guilford, Durham, Bladen, Halifax, and Johnston counties could also each see one new charter school in their districts.

Just over a quarter of the 28 charter school applicants planned to contract with education management organizations (EMO) to help manage their schools. The remaining charter school boards would have run their schools independently, without large-scale for-profit entities providing financial management or curricular assistance.

Those charter schools that the charter advisory board ultimately recommended reflected a similar breakdown in terms of those that will partner with an EMO versus those that will not.

Four out of the thirteen schools have plans to contract with EMOs, and National Heritage Academies scored the biggest win by getting approval for two of those four schools. With the approval of Montcross Charter Academy in Gaston County, Charter Schools USA could add an eighth school to their North Carolina cache.

An interactive map of current and proposed charter schools in North Carolina. Credit: NC Office of Charter Schools

Split votes common

Of the thirteen approved charter school applications, there were several that sparked intense debate among advisory board members over the past few months thanks to concerns that the applications didn’t reach a high enough bar when it comes to quality.

Kaleidoscope Charter High School, which plans to locate in Morrisville, drew concerns from some advisory board members about the lack of clarity in the educational plan and the low wages the school would offer its teachers.

“I’m sorry, but even with a hard-working teacher, it’s going to be very difficult. How have you thought through how you’re going to operationalize this,” said CSAB chair Alex Quigley when considering the proposed workloads for teachers. [For an in-depth report on Kaleidoscope, head over to this News & Observer article.]

In addition, CSAB members expressed concern over the school’s ability to attract enough students and that there wasn’t enough in their application to address the needs of low-income students—nonetheless, CSAB member Joe Maimone said he liked Kaleidoscope’s leadership and that was enough for him to give the school the go-ahead. Six of his fellow board members went along with him and moved the school forward.

After the board’s yes vote, CSAB member Alan Hawkes walked over to where Kaleidoscope’s board members were seated to offer his congratulations. As he shook their hands, Hawkes told them, “just get these concerns straightened out.”

The Kaleidoscope debate fell in line with an emerging pattern taking place among members of the charter school advisory board.

In January, I reported that CSAB chair Alex Quigley pleaded with his colleagues not to greenlight Next Generation Academy, the one charter school that received a tie vote.

“I think it’s interesting…that the people on the board who have run [charter] schools successfully, that changed the trajectory of kids’ lives in low-income communities— [they] are saying this [Next Generation’s charter application] is not at the level that our kids deserve,” said Quigley back in January.

He took a pause before asking incredulously, “Do you not believe us?”

Last month, members addressed the issue head on during a discussion of how to uphold a high bar when it came to vetting charter school applications.

CSAB member Eric Sanchez said that the selection process is too subjective and the board’s decisions seem to come down to how much they like who stands before them asking to open a charter school.

“If they go up there and they’re charismatic and know a little bit, then we give some latitude and we say go,” said Sanchez. “Even if they’re not … being clear on their education plan or other parts of their application.”

More scrutiny of troubled Z.E.C.A. charter school

For the second month in a row, charter school advisory board members heard from Z.E.C.A. School of the Arts and Technology, an Onslow County charter school that is dealing with a budget shortfall of more than $70,000 and still has not repaid federal payroll taxes to the IRS.

While the school’s director promised to have a budget surplus by the end of the school year, CSAB board members couldn’t make heads or tails of that math, figuring that expenses would have to be cut considerably in order to make that even possible.

CSAB’s Alan Hawkes said he found Z.E.C.A.’s financials to be in total disarray and felt it necessary to move in the direction of revoking their charter.

The board voted to have Z.E.C.A. return in August, at which time they must be in the black financially and have demonstrated high student achievement if they want to stay in business.

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