As Delawareans are out enjoying their summer, those close to public education know that summer is a very busy season. Hiring, planning, job changes, test score releases, budgets, and annual board meetings that select leadership for the upcoming school year to name just a few. Of course 2012 is no exception and the business of running our schools is in full swing. Recently, Nichole Dobo and Wade Malcolm of the News Journal exposed a diploma mill scam that has visited Delaware in the form of a charter school leader. Ms. Ann Lewis of Pencader procured her doctorate from Westfield University, an online school that is now apparently defunct, that lacks accreditation from any agency.
The story got my attention as charter schools and their oversight have become a hot button in Delaware recently with the heated expansion of Newark Charter School, so I began to dig a bit. What I have found has been most unsettling.
Pencader charter school is in crisis. As of July 2nd, the board is down to two members who chose 6 new members without any public comment or consideration under questionable authority to make the decision. The State Board of Education and the Delaware Department of Education have been publicly silent about the whole affair while Pencader and their parents and students have been left in the dark. The previous Pencader Board President, Harrie Ellen Minnehan, praised on the floor of the House by Deputy Secretary Dan Cruce as a dedicated educator willing to work with inner city children for no additional pay for the majority of her career, resigned effective June 1st, reapplied to the board, then withdrew on the morning of July 2nd under the premise the board as constructed had no legal authority. Since June 1st, the board has been drifting listlessly for 5 weeks. There is no president, one of the two mandatory teacher members resigned from the school, and two terms have expired, leaving them with just the 2 members until the selection on July 2.
What does this mean? Well, Pencader cannot function effectively and perhaps not legally. They may not be able to enter into contracts and any kind, terminate anyone, or hire anyone. It is paralyzing to a school. The parents of Pencader are, from all available reports, uninformed about most all of this as there is no evidence of direct communication from the school to the parents. There is certainly no direct, obvious effort to communicate to the Pencader community or us, the taxpayers who fund it. Add that to the enrollment numbers as of May 1st which fell well below the 80% DOE requirement and the current number which is still well below the 80% threshold and you have the recipe for a fiscal disaster.
Why should any of this matter to anyone? Well, Delaware charter schools are 501(c) (3) corporations under Delaware law funded 100% Delaware taxpayer dollars (Federal funds are also derived from taxpayer dollars). Delaware taxpayers have a right to expect our Department of Education, under the leadership of a gubernatorial appointment, Secretary of Education Mark Murphy, will act to ensure our funds are spent wisely and within the rules of the laws governing public education. This means no vendor conflicts, no pension frauds, and no no-bid contracts where the law compels bidding. All of the above have been alleged by various Pencader stakeholders in recent days. Governor Markell and Mark Murphy need to ask for Auditor of Accounts Tom Wagner to go in to Pencader to restore public faith in how the school is being run by executing a full financial audit of all accounts, on and off the books (boosters, etc.).
The innovation of having charter schools run by non-educators, especially those with degrees from diploma mills, should stop. The Delaware Charter Network should denounce this behavior as a betrayal of public trust and embrace a full audit of Pencader. Anything less will merely amplify the argument that charter oversight is lacking, both internally and externally.
The Delaware State Board of Education must act to restore faith in Pencader. Depending on audit findings this may mean fundamental restructure, or even closure. The real enemy here is inaction. The State Board works for us, the people of Delaware, and we deserve oversight that is fair, consistent, and earnest.
Finally, the Governor needs to take decisive action above all, and get Delaware taxpayers out of the Pencader Pickle.
John M. Young is the former President of the Christina School District Board of Education and current CSD board member.