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The State Board of Education tackled two high profile subjects Thursday, approving an audit report to the General Assembly and a contract between the Innovative School District and Achievement for All Children (AAC).

Eric Hall, superintendent of the ISD, narrowed in last month on Charlotte-based Achievement for All Children — one of two possible picks to operate Southside Ashpole, the inaugural ISD school. The Board ultimately voted to approve AAC in April, but not before expressing many concerns about Hall’s recommendation. Hall appeased members by agreeing to add stipulations in the final contract that would give him final say on many of the actions the AAC will take. 

“This is really an exciting time because we are at a point where we are not just starting with our first school, we are launching a statewide LEA (school district),” Hall said Thursday.

Under the Innovative School District, five schools will 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. 

The contract grants AAC control over two aspects of Southside Ashpole: management of the school and hiring of the principal. Hall will have final approval of the principal hiring process. 

AAC gets $100,000 a year for school operation and will receive separate funds for the principal. 

The contract also includes provisions for early termination of the partnership, including “If, during the five (5) year term of this Agreement, the Innovative School’s average annual percentage growth does not exceed the average annual percentage growth of other Qualifying Schools for three (3) consecutive years, the SBE, upon the recommendation of the ISD Superintendent, may terminate this Agreement at the conclusion of the then current academic year.”

Board member Patricia Willoughby and others expressed concern at the structural layers between the State Board and Southside Ashpole. Between the Board and Ashpole are Hall, AAC, and TeamCFA, which has been contracted by AAC to help with the management of the school.

“That’s a lot of layers down before we get to those children in that school,” she said. 

Board member Olivia Oxendine focused her concerns on what will happen in the classroom. 

“I’m concerned about the same concerns that have been shared by my colleagues…but I’m also concerned, mainly concerned, about what needs to happen in terms of instruction,” she said. 

Hall assured her that an instructional coach would be hired for the school, and TeamCFA would be bringing in five coaches of its own to work with the school. 

“I think it’s a very good contract,” Board member Becky Taylor said. “I think you put in a lot of safeguards.” 

The approval of AAC raised some eyebrows because it was created last year and did not get a stellar performance review from an independent consultant who evaluated it. In addition, 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. The founder of AAC’s partner on Southside Ashpole, TeamCFA, is John Bryan (no relation to Rob Bryan), a prominent political contributor and supporter of school choice who advocated for the ISD. A News & Observer article explored the connections between the ISD, AAC and TeamCFA. 

With the contract approved, the school is cleared to open August 27th. In the meantime, more work needs to be done, including establishing financial management, human resources, and a website. 

The Board also approved Thursday an audit report conducted by Ernst & Young which could have far reaching implications for the organization of the Department of Public Instruction.

The report, which includes 18 recommendations as well as the potential to save DPI more than $1 million, was the focus of an extensive conversation at Tuesday’s work session. One of the recommendations was the creation of a transformation office at DPI to oversee implementation of the changes. The Board voted Thursday to create that office, and Board chair Bill Cobey announced he was creating a committee of the Board that will focus on transformation. 

The report to the General Assembly includes a cover letter (page 5) from the State Board and Johnson asking lawmakers to delay implementation of $5.1 million in scheduled cuts. The letter suggests the cuts would hamper DPI’s ability to make the changes suggested by the audit. 

“I strongly believe implementing the recommendations in this third-party evaluation will significantly improve how this agency functions internally and how districts, schools, educators, and students are supported across the state,” said state Superintendent Mark Johnson in a press release. “With a strong commitment from leadership, these recommendations can be fully implemented.”

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.