Tuesday, July 22, 2014

When I say anyone can run a charter school in Florida...

I'm afraid I may be spending too much time on the rogues' gallery of the Florida charter school scandals. It's an entertaining aspect but its importance is primarily as a symptom of flawed assumptions and a badly designed system. These sharp operators are flocking to the state because the incentives that encourage good behavior are misaligned and the checks that prevent bad behavior are missing.

Functional systems don't hire people with resumes like that of Steve Gallon III.

From the Sun-Sentinels exceptional series on Florida's charter schools:
New Jersey authorities banned educator Steve Gallon III from working in their public schools. Five months later, three South Florida charter schools welcomed him.

The struggling schools gave Gallon’s company $500,000 in taxpayer dollars over two years, allowing him to give jobs and double payments to his cronies, a Sun Sentinel investigation found.

Records obtained by the newspaper reveal questionable decisions at the schools as their finances unraveled, providing a rare look into the perils of Florida’s loosely regulated charter-school industry.

Florida has more than 600 charter schools, which are independently operated but funded with tax dollars. Because they face less regulation, charter schools have more freedom to innovate.

State law gives oversight of these schools to individual volunteer governing boards, rather than the district’s school board. But such boards sometimes fail to monitor public money and control the private companies they hire, the Sun Sentinel found.

The governing boards for three charter schools in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties hired Gallon and his company, Tri-Star Leadership, in June 2011.

The boards were undeterred by Gallon’s troubles as a school superintendent in New Jersey, where back-to-back investigations prompted the governor and police to get involved. Gallon had been accused of hiring unqualified friends and then lying about their residences so their children could attend schools outside their district.

In the next 18 months, documents show, the South Florida charter school boards stood by as Gallon:

• Hired two associates who, along with Gallon, had been arrested and banned from working in New Jersey schools. One became principal of the Palm Beach County school at a salary of $80,000 a year; the other was paid $60,000 a year for consulting work.

• Made payroll decisions without prior authorization from the charter schools’ governing boards, drawing rebukes from the schools’ financial consultants.

• Hired a $40,000-a-year consultant who listed her residence as a Georgia home owned by Gallon.

• Launched a business venture with one of the volunteer board members responsible for overseeing Gallon’s work for the charter schools. The venture was later deemed a conflict of interest by Miami-Dade school district investigators.

At least three consultants contracted by the governing boards warned their bosses of inappropriate actions under Gallon, records show. Yet Gallon stayed on as those who complained quit — or were fired.
Both traditional public schools and charter schools receive public dollars based on their enrollment, and don’t charge tuition. Administrators at traditional public schools are accountable for every penny spent. But the private companies hired by many charter school governing boards don’t have to open their books.

Plainfield, N.J., schools hired him as superintendent in 2008, paying him $198,000 a year to oversee the central New Jersey district of about 7,000 students.

The back-to-back scandals quickly erupted.

Soon after his arrival, Gallon brought on three colleagues from Miami at six-figure salaries. Investigators from the New Jersey Department of Education concluded that two lacked proper state certification and one of those two lacked a required degree.

To address the issue, Gallon recommended hiring them under different titles that did not require certification.

Gov. Chris Christie then stepped in, calling for New Jersey’s education commissioner to take action, according to news reports. A day later, the School Board fired the pair, Lalelei Kelly and Lesly Borge.

Less than a month later, in May 2010, police arrested Gallon, Kelly and Angela Kemp, the third Miami hire. The state Attorney General said Gallon falsely claimed the women lived at his address in South Plainfield — a school district in which they neither lived nor worked.

The trio’s lies, prosecutors said, enabled both women’s children to attend South Plainfield schools illegally and cost taxpayers $10,500 over four months. The women later paid back the money, records show.

In January 2011, Gallon and the two women agreed to serve probation and never again work in New Jersey’s public schools. In exchange, the charges were dismissed.

The following year, the three reunited — in Florida’s charter-school system.

[Tonya] Deal said she believed his version of the New Jersey scandal — the story was overblown by the media — and urged the schools to hire him.

Gallon fully disclosed his past to the boards, said another board member, Lewis. She told the Sun Sentinel she believed Gallon’s arrest had nothing to do with his official duties in New Jersey, and noted that he had not been convicted of any crime.

Gallon got the job. He was hired as a $135-per-hour consultant in June 2011. His mission: improving student performance at the three schools.

By the end of 2012, the boards for the charters declared states of fiscal urgency. Though the Miami-Dade school would recover in the coming months, the end was near for the Broward and Palm Beach county schools.

Attendance at both schools fell dramatically from the prior year, in part because of moves to new facilities, dropping from 202 to 92 at the Palm school and from 241 to 88 at the Broward school. Because the schools receive public money based on their student population, the drop in enrollment resulted in a plunge in school income.

The two schools also were crumbling academically — the area Gallon had been hired to improve.

The Broward school showed no evidence of a reading program, English language instruction for non-native speakers or services for students with disabilities, district officials reported. The school also provided false information about teachers, the officials said.

The Palm Beach County school lacked a science teacher and did not offer core courses, district officials reported. A state administrative law judge found the school lacked reading lesson plans, study guides or even textbooks; “neglected” biology and math; and “failed in its most basic duties to educate its students.”

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