Challenge Foundation Academy CEO Helton resigns from state board

RALEIGH — The News & Observer reported last week that TeamCFA (Challenge Foundation Academy) chief executive officer Tony Helton had resigned from the state Charter Schools Advisory Board. Helton had created a possible ethics conflict over his company’s (Achievement for All Children) proposal of a management contract for Charlotte’ declining Aristotle Prep-CFA while a member of the state Charter School Advisory Committee that would recommend it.

Helton reported cited an increased workload at TeamCFA for his resignation. TeamCFA, associated with Oregonian John Bryan, already has 13 charter schools in North Carolina. Among them are Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy- CFA and Lake Lure Classical Academy-CFA.

According to the News & Observer:

“One wealthy Oregonian’s [John Bryan] persistent lobbying resulting in the takeover of elementary schools in distressed North Carolina communities is disturbing enough, but to find out his organization may directly benefit makes the whole scheme even more questionable,” said Andrea Verykoukis, spokeswoman for Public Schools First NC.

From Achievement for All Children’s (Incorporated February 2017) website:

AAC’s board of directors is comprised of proven thought leaders in the education community. Our CEO, Tony Helton, began his career as a sixth grade geography teacher and high school government AP. He went on to lead a charter school in Brevard, NC increasing test scores from 40.7 percent to 71 percent school wide. With the board and CEOs wealth of knowledge and leadership abilities, AAC advances schools from mediocre to exemplary using proven methods.

There is no listing of the Achievement for All Children’s board of directors. However, the News & Observer who is publishing an investigative series on charter schools and their management, stated:

The plan that came before the Board of Education this week would allow Tony Helton, who is already a member of the advisory board [state Charter Advisory Board] and CEO of a foundation[Challenge Foundation Academy] that supports Aristotle Preparatory Academy [CFA], to take over management of Aristotle in exchange for 5 percent to 10 percent of Aristotle’s revenue. That would likely come to $70,000 to $140,000, Helton said, depending on whether the school makes the academic gains to earn the 10 percent. The actual amount would depend on enrollment and fund-raising.

The board of Helton’s new management company is made up of [former Rep. Bryan], who was a leading school choice advocate during his four years as a state representative; Allison, who heads Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina; and Phillip Byers, [ Challenge Foundation Properties Board of Directors and Advisors member along with John Bryan, President TeamCFA board member and former appointed sheriff for Rutherford County].

The Board of Education was concerned enough about the unusually tangled web of money and connections that they asked for more time and an expert ruling before they sign off.

In March 2016 Aristotle Prep – CFA was among the state’s list of at-risk charter schools based on low test scores and “signs of financial insolvency.” Team CFA is already on the board of Aristotle Prep and part of

2017-2018 Aristotle Prep- CFA Board Members:

In fall of 2016 Aristotle Prep -CFA received an F from the state and failed to meet academic growth standards. This year Aristotle Prep – CFA received a D. Last year Aristotle enrollment was 150 students, compared with 550 projected when it received the charter. Charter schools’ public money is tied to enrollment—a slump in enrollment can cause financial challenges to cover basic costs.

However, according to Aristotle Prep’s June minutes (see below) the CFA representative on the board, Jason Cole, already made the motion to approve the recommendation to the Board of Education to hire CAA. They went on to say that CAA had proposed a director to hire. In fact, Charlie French has already been installed as the Aristotle Prep – CFA director. Among the duties of the director is control over the approved budget.

There are some critical questions that require honest answers:

  1. Why would Aristotle Prep- CFA  hire the CFA personnel in Achievement for All Children to fix a CFA failing school?
  2. If all the N.C. TeamCFA schools were grouped into a district, their state grade would be a C. Does that grade qualify them to be proven consultants and managers?
  3. Since Cole is paid by CFA to be on the board of directors for Aristotle Prep – CFA, shouldn’t he have recused himself from both making a motion and voting on the Aristotle Prep contract due to conflict of interest?

The Aristotle Prep – CFA and Achievement for All Children contract requires state Board of Education approval. A fundamental problem is that Aristotle’s board did not seek proposals from other management companies. It seems a sweetheart deal for Aristotle Prep-CFA was arranged by a network of TeamCFA members.

In this case, the advisory board requested a three-person panel of state Board of Education members to review the Aristotle Prep -CFA plan. The trio endorsed the plan originally, but conflict of interest concerns moved the full board voted unanimously to defer action and get a ruling from the ethics commission.

Struggling and failed charter schools result in:

  • increasing problems for public confidence in charters,
  • burdens on public schools who take on the students while the public funding remains with the charter, and
  • most of all on the children who leave classmates, teachers, and their previous education behind.

“At its annual meeting the educators of the National Education Association drew a sharp new line between charter schools that have a positive effect on public education and those unaccountable, privately managed charter schools that hurt public schools and students. A new policy statement adopted by the assembly denounces unaccountable charters as a “failed and damaging experiment,” and calls for a stop to the proliferation of such schools by supporting state and local efforts to hold charters accountable, to preserve funding for public schools, and to organize charter educators.”