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Indiana charter board's first test

Just one sign will tell if Indiana's new state charter school board intends to act in the best interests of students and taxpayers or if it's a rubber-stamp for the state's relentless education privatization push. If the board approves a charter for the Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy in Fort Wayne, it's the latter.

At a public hearing Monday, not a single parent or student spoke in favor of the proposed school, which would be sponsored by the Fort Wayne Urban League. Of the two proponents, one was a former employee of Urban League President Jonathan Ray, who ran the county's welfare office under the previous state administration. Fred Gilbert, an advocate for the city's refugee community, spoke to Ray's openness to programs serving the Burmese and other refugee populations. The other was Kevin Brown, a former Fort Wayne Community Schools board member who lost his reelection bid after a drunk-driving arrest.

On the other side, almost a dozen representatives from FWCS and East Allen County Schools questioned the need for a third charter school in the county, citing improvements in achievement at both districts and programs to assist at-risk populations.

The hearing was conducted by Claire Fiddian-Green, executive director of the Indiana Charter School Board, and Sarah McClamroch, the board manager. William Shrewsberry, a former deputy mayor of Indianapolis and appointee of Gov. Mitch Daniels, was the only board member present. Unlike most public hearings, comments were not recorded.

Fiddian-Green said the public hearing would not be the only factor in the board's decision on the school, which would be operated by American Quality Schools, an education management organization operating 13 schools in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.

Certainly, the EMO's record is relevant. So how does it look?

Far from stellar. AQS' best school letter-grade under Indiana's new accountability system was a B for the Discovery Charter School in Porter. Its five other schools earned Cs, Ds and an F.

The administrator of AQS' Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary is Gwendolyn Adell. She resigned from the Indiana State Board of Education this year after questions were raised about her doctoral dissertation, which included identical passages from a Virginia Tech dissertation completed years earlier. Purdue has finished its plagiarism investigation but will not disclose the results, citing privacy issues. Adell's academic title is still listed on the American Quality Schools web site.

A quick survey of AQS' financial oversight is not reassuring. A March 2011 State Board of Accounts audit for the East Chicago Urban Enterprise Academy shows a laundry list of accounting errors: overdrawn cash balances, fund transfers not approved by the school board, incorrect postings on loan payments, negative disbursements, official bonds not filed with the county recorder, incorrect reporting of enrollment, receipts not issued, and claims paid and checks issued prior to school board approval. An audit for Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in April showed many of the same errors.

Then there's the glaring conflict of interest posed by charter board member Jamie Garwood's role in preparing the charter school application as an Urban League employee. Why did the Urban League submit its application to the new state charter board instead of the charter school office at Ball State University, which authorized the three other Fort Wayne charters?

In spite of a ruling from the state ethics commission, Garwood's involvement with the state charter board doesn't pass the smell test. The board still would be responsible for monitoring the school's progress.

If the new charter board truly aspires to demonstrate "rigorous and transparent accountability," it will look for a new board member without a troubling tie to a charter school application.

In the meantime, the new board's overall credibility is on the line with one of its very first charter applications.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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