The state’s Charter Schools Advisory Board (CSAB) was stuck on a decision for months and eventually decided to punt to the State Board of Education. On Thursday, at its monthly meeting, the SBE punted back.
The ball being punted back and forth? One of North Carolina’s two virtual charter schools: N.C. Connections Academy (NCC), home to more than 2,400 students. NCC is in a bitter dispute with its Education Management Organization (EMO), Pearson OBL, and unless a resolution can be found soon the school could face closure.
“It’s like a really bad divorce,” said Steven Walker, vice chairman of the CSAB. “But instead of two or three kids involved, you have 2,500.”
It all began last December, when NCC and Pearson began talks for a contract extension to take effect this year. The school and EMO already had a strained relationship, with the school dissatisfied with Pearson’s day-to-day operations to the point that it forced an amendment to the original 2015 agreement in 2017. Upon negotiations for an extension last December, Pearson pushed for terms to return to the 2015 agreement, thereby increasing their control over day-to-day management.
This did not sit well with the Board of Directors for NC Connections.
“The Board has concluded that, at this point in the life of our school, it would be in the best interests of the students, families and staff to transition from our current EMO arrangement to a model of joint responsibilities shared by the school and a small group of vendors,” the board wrote in an email message to Dave Machado, director of the Office of Charter Schools.
NCC petitioned the CSAB to amend its charter application to remove Pearson as EMO. When NCC appeared before the CSAB in March, the CSAB felt the petition was too complex and lacked clarity around which vendors NCC would use for management purposes.
According to NC Policy Watch, NCC planned to use Edgenuity Inc. for online curriculum; Learning Management System for reporting and communication tools to support curriculum delivery and student reporting; Phillips Managed Support Services for distribution and technology support services, Simon-Crair Group for financial services; and Media Partners Inc. for marketing services.
When NC Connections appeared before the CSAB with this information in April, it was a tense affair with representatives from each side lobbing complaints and charges against the other, and the CSAB was unable to reach agreement around how to proceed. The CSAB elected to allow the SBE to make a decision about whether to amend the school’s charter to allow it to end its relationship with Pearson.
But the SBE was not satisfied with CSAB’s work to date.
“The Charter Schools Advisory Board had the chance to say keep the charter, bring in your partners and go — but you didn’t,” SBE member JB Buxton said. “And so now, I’m just speaking personally, I’m wrestling with how to deal with the fact that they don’t seem to endorse this new arrangement.”
Initially, SBE member JB Buxton wondered why the CSAB couldn’t just let the charter lapse and reapply. But CSAB representatives raised the issue of 2,500 students who would need to find a new school. SBE member Amy White noted that she and other board members had received numerous e-mails from parents.
“If we close down Connections,” she said, “these are not students who would be going back to traditional public schools. They sought out the virtual environment because they needed something different.”
The SBE repeatedly questioned CSAB reps on Thursday for whether CSAB had provided any recommendations or guidance on options, but there was none. As the discussions around this issue wound down, SBE member Alan Duncan gave initial voice to the SBE’s eventual response:
“We need your team to go back and wrestle with this one,” Duncan told Walker.
The CSAB will meet next week to discuss recommendations, and the SBE will plan to hold a teleconference meeting to make a final decision sometime soon thereafter.
The state’s two virtual charter schools have always been controversial, with opponents heavily criticizing them for their poor performance since they opened their virtual doors.