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Innovative School District (ISD) Superintendent Eric Hall received a less-than-enthusiastic response from some State Board of Education members today when he presented his recommendation for an inaugural ISD school operator. 

Under the Innovative School District, five schools will be selected to be taken over by operators which could include for-profit charter or education management organizations. The schools will no longer be run by their traditional school districts during the five years they are under ISD authority. 

Southside Ashpole will be the first school and is slated to operate under the ISD starting this coming fall. However, having an operator in place before is a crucial first step before that can happen. 

Hall’s recommendation, Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children(AAC) includes former Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, on its leadership team. Bryan was the lawmaker who spearheaded the legislation that became the Innovative School District. 

His role was not, however, the explicit focus of Board members’ concerns, Instead, they expressed concern about AAC’s limited track record in turning around low-performing schools. AAC came into existence last year, and one of the requirements of an ISD operator is evidence that it has been able to improve struggling schools or it will contract with an organization that has a track record of improving struggling schools. 

“I think they deserve better. I think they deserve an operator who has a demonstrated track record,” said Board member Eric Davis. 

ACA has a short track record, but it is contracted with TeamCFA, a charter network of 13 schools in North Carolina. 

In discussing TeamCFA, Hall mentioned it has had mixed results, which NC Principal of the Year Jason Griffin, an advisory member of the Board, questioned.

“(Southside Ashpole) is a school that is at 27 percent proficient,” he said. “I don’t know that we can afford to have an operator that has mixed results.” 

But Hall said the full burden of turning around the school is not the exclusive responsibility of AAC and TeamCFA. Hall and the ISD district staff will be working with the operator and making sure that progress is moving in the right direction.

“We’re not asking the operator to do this on their own,” he said. “This is not simply handing over the keys.” 

The fact that AAC was contracting with TeamCFA also became a subject of some discussion. Board Member Patricia Willoughby asked why AAC was going to be the operator if TeamCFA was doing the work. 

“I’m having trouble connecting those dots and understanding the role of AAC,” she said. 

Hall explained that only some of the operation will be handled by TeamCFA. He also said AAC was created with the express purpose of doing the kind of turnaround work the ISD is trying to accomplish while TeamCFA focuses on running charter schools.

Some Board members, like Wayne McDevitt, announced during the discussion today their reluctance to support the recommendation.

“This is a big decision. It’s a precedent. So I think we have to enter it carefully,” he said. “There are too many unanswered questions for me.”

But others on the Board, including Chair Bill Cobey, said they trusted Hall and would support his recommendation. 

“We’ve had a lot of questions, and a lot of questions are going to have to be answered as we go on, but I for one am at a point where I think we can go on and take a calculated risk…” he said. “I’m going to stick my neck out on that.” 

Board member Greg Alcorn said that he would have never been successful if prior experience was a prerequisite to taking on a job. 

“If I had never gotten any business because I didn’t have experience in that industry, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” he said. 

He went on to say that he placed his “faith” in Hall. 

Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, a Board member, acknowledged that the ISD is not a sure bet, but he said the General Assembly took a brave stance when it created the program as an innovative way to address low-performing schools. 

“I don’t think we should be scared…” he said. “If we knew the solution to this problem, we wouldn’t have 505 low performing schools.” 

Superintendent Mark Johnson was asked to weigh in on the discussion. He said he was confident in the Board’s process, in Hall, and in Hall’s recommendation. When asked to elaborate, he reiterated his confidence in the recommendation. 

All the Board members who spoke seemed to agree on trusting Hall. At one point, Davis suggested that perhaps a way could be found to have Hall choose the principal of Southside Ashpole under the ISD instead of having an outside operator like AAC select the principal. 

Hall, however, said the legislation was pretty specific that the operator gets to choose the principal. 

Taylor, who said she was not sure about the recommendation, suggested that maybe the Board could vote for the recommendation with stipulations that would have to be met by AAC. At the end of the discussion, she told Hall she would like for him to return before the Board tomorrow with some tweaks to his recommendation and perhaps some alternative ideas. Hall said he would do so as long as he could consult with the Board attorneys as to his options. He he believed alternative options had already been exhausted. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.