Local officials express concerns about scant community connections of proposed Durham charter school operator
DURHAM — Should it matter if leaders of a large charter school planned for one county live in another?
Durham Public Schools (DPS) officials think it should.
They shared their concerns about such a looming arrangement recently in a charter school impact statement sent to the state Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB), which advises the State Board of Education on charter policy and applications.
Signed by DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and Mike Lee, chairman of the Durham school board, the impact statement urged CSAB to reject the charter application for Oak Grove Charter Academy based partially on the fact that none of the school’s board members reside in Durham County.
“Based on Oak Grove Charter Academy’s application, it is easy to believe that its board’s commitment to Durham families and students is driven simply by a perceived business opportunity,” the statement said. “The lead applicant resides in Granville County. The registered agent for the private non-profit is located in Alamance County. The four directors reside in Granville, Lee and Wayne counties.”
There are no laws against living in one county and operating a charter in another, but the arrangement also raised a red flag for one CSAB member who was supportive of the charter application.
Scott Walker, who co-chairs CSAB, said his concerns were put to rest after three members of Oak Grove’s board of directors explained that they remain involved in the Durham community even though they no longer live there.
The three board members previously lived in Durham but moved to nearby Granville County in recent years. The board hopes to draw students from Granville County as well Durham.
“They [Oak Grove’s board of directors] all had such tie-ins to Durham and it’s not like Granville County’s the other side of the state,” Walker said. “It’s right there. That took care of a lot of that concern.”
But are Oak Grove’s board of directors really involved in the Durham community in the way they claim to be?
DPS leaders said they could find no “evidence of deep and ongoing community engagement” by members of the school’s board of directors.
Siphoning off students and resources from traditional public schools?
Despite DPS’ concerns, the CSAB has recommended state approval for Oak Grove. If the State Board of Education (SBE) gives the OK, the school will open in 2023 off I-85 near the Gorman community.
Oak Grove officials agreed to change the school’s name to avoid confusion with DPS’ Oak Grove Elementary School.
The new charter school is projected to grow to nearly 800 students in grades K-8 by the 2024-25 school year.
That’s troublesome for DPS, which already has 14 charters attended by more than 7,000 students. The county passes through more than $24 million a year to the 14 schools. Because educational dollars follow students, school districts must pass on per pupil expenditures when families choose charters.
Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) officials also submitted an impact statement and urged CSAB and the SBE to not approve the school.
Although the school would primarily serve the Gorman community area in Durham, it would also be an option for students in the extreme northwestern part of Wake County.
“For the reasons stated in the accompanying impact statement provided by Durham Public Schools, and because Oak Grove Charter Academy would not provide any additional or innovative options already available to our students, WCPSS does not believe this application should be recommended by the Charter School Advisory Board or approved by the State Board of Education,” said the statement signed by WCCPS’ board chairman James Martin and Superintendent Cathy Moore.
Gerald McNair, chairman of Oak Grove’s board of directors, would not make himself available to answer Policy Watch questions about why the group selected Durham for the new school instead of Granville County, where three of the five directors reside.
But McNair, who moved to Granville County five years ago, offered this explanation during CSAB’s monthly business meeting:
“Over the past 12 years, I have been real concerned about the educational opportunities for the children of Durham,” McNair said. “I feel a disproportionate number of our public schools in Durham County are operating below par. Therefore, our children, I feel, are being denied the opportunity to achieve at the highest level that they possibly can.”
Oak Grove’s charter application offers a concise explanation for why McNair and his colleagues chose Durham County instead of Granville County.
Spoiler alert: Durham County is where the larger pool of potential students is located.
“U.S. Census data shows Durham County’s population rose 17.3 percent from 2010-2018 and the Durham-Chapel Hill area is the state’s fourth-fastest-growing metro area. With 20.8 percent of residents under the age of 18, Durham has a large population of school-aged children,” the application states.
McNair is an adjunct professor at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh. He has five children, but all are college-aged or older.
Historically, charter school founders have often resided in communities where they start schools. They often say that they opened the schools because they are dissatisfied with the performance of the traditional public schools and would like to give families options.
But times appear to be changing.
“Many times, citizens from a community will come together to start a charter school; however, since charter schools usually have students from numerous LEAs, it is not unheard of that some interested stakeholders might be interested in starting a charter school in an area that seems to have a need,” Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association of Public Charter Schools, said in a statement.
One thing that has become increasingly clear in recent years is that charter schools are now big business. Local founders now partner with large management companies that are paid for their services.
So, it’s more profitable to locate a charter in Durham where there’s a larger pool of students upon which to draw. Enrollment in Granville County Public Schools is about 8,000, roughly one-fourth of Durham’s 33,000.
Durham County also spends more local dollars on students than Granville County.
“The charter school industry has become a large pot of money for people to start small businesses,” said Durham school board member Natalie Beyer.
Helen Ladd, a professor emerita at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy — who writes extensively about charter schools — said she’s concerned that none of the Oak Grove’s board members live in Durham.
“For me, if you told me all these board members are interested in Durham and that they live in Durham, that makes it seem a little bit better to me,” Ladd said. “Now, the alternative, and this happens with charter schools in other states and this one too, you may just have a completely outside group, a network of charter schools that is run nationally or statewide and they come into a local district. That bothers me, given my notion that there is a local public interest in educating all children in the district. If you have a group coming from outside the district, that doesn’t seem quite right to me.”
Oak Grove will partner with National Heritage Academies (NHA), a large Michigan-based for-profit management firm that operates 13 charter schools in North Carolina.
NHA was founded in 1995 by billionaire J. C. Huizenga. It operates 85 schools, 47 in Michigan. The charter chain serves more than 55,000 students.
Oak Grove would be the second National Heritage Academies School in Durham. The other is Research Triangle Charter Academy.
In a 2018 interview with the conservative Impact magazine, Huizenga expounded on his philosophy regarding the business of charter schools.
“Competition always does two things,” Huizenga said. “It drives up quality and it drives down costs.”
And recalling economist and arch-conservative icon Milton Friedman, Huizenga added: “Anything government can do, the private sector can do better — and at half the cost.”
Huizenga also says profits from his charter school operation are reinvested in NHA.
“I put bread on the table not from National Heritage,” Huizenga said. “The profit doesn’t go into somebody’s pocket; it goes into the next school we build. I make my livelihood off the 13 enterprises that Huizenga Group operates.”
Mubenga noted in DPS’ impact statement that Oak Grove would compete for students with Glenn Elementary School, which, along with Lakewood Elementary School, was previously targeted for a privately-run state takeover by the Innovative School District, a polarizing program created in 2016.
Glenn and Lakewood were eventually removed from the list of schools to be considered for the ISD. Both are now operating under the state’s Restart reform model, which grants such schools charter-like flexibility to improve student achievement.
Mubenga also noted the troubling irony of granting a charter to a school to compete for students against one of the state’s Restart schools.
“Oak Grove Charter Academy would undermine the state’s own school transformation efforts at Glenn Elementary, a designated Restart School,” Mubenga said.
He said DPS has made “significant improvements” with enrollment growth and has almost eliminated all schools from the state’s “low-performing” list.
“This is despite an oversaturation – disproportionate to the rest of the state – of charter school operators in Durham County,” he said. “Further charter school expansion would only serve to dilute support for public education at a time when momentum is essential to accelerating DPS’s progress.”
Beyer challenged McNair’s claim that the school district isn’t serving students well.
“It resonates as being completely out-of-touch with the Durham community and the work we’re doing every day,” Beyer said. “If he [McNair] loves the children of Durham, then he should come join us at Lakewood and Glenn where we are tirelessly working to change students’ lives and trajectory. Don’t undermine that work with a publicly-funded, privately-managed school.”
Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.