State school board approves first contractor for new district

RALEIGH — Despite concerns from a handful of members, the State Board of Education voted April 5 to let Achievement for All Children operate North Carolina’s first Innovative School District school.

Seven board members voted for AAC’s involvement, while Eric Davis, Wayne McDevitt, Becky Taylor, and Patricia Willoughby opposed it. Discussions about AAC spanned two days.

Robeson County’s Southside Ashpole Elementary was chosen last November as the first school to join the ISD, formally known as the Achievement School District. In 2016, lawmakers set up the new program, which places as many as five low-performing elementary schools under charter or education management for five years.

Only two groups applied for the ISD operator position: Charlotte-based AAC and the Romine Group, a charter school management group from Michigan. Former Rep. Rob Bryan, R-Mecklenburg, who introduced legislation that created the ISD, is on AAC’s board.

During the April 4 meeting, state board members focused on AAC’s performance and its relationship with TeamCFA — a national network of public charter schools. Schoolworks, an independent education consulting firm, evaluated all applicants.

The company said AAC met expectations in four areas out of 11, and partially met six others. AAC failed to meet expectations for special programs/addressing at-risk students.

AAC, which was created in February 2017, has little experience in turning around low-performing schools — a concern cited by several board members.

“I think they deserve an operator who has a demonstrated track record,” said Davis. “I’m all for giving someone a first chance, but I am not for risking the education of 300 students just to give some adults a first chance.”

Jason Griffin, the N.C. principal of the year and a board member, echoed similar concerns.

“I don’t know that we can afford to have an operator that has mixed results,” Griffin said.

ISD Superintendent Eric Hall explained that despite AAC’s limited track record, its business relationship with TeamCFA makes it qualified for the operator role. Hall added that the ISD will be closely monitored to ensure strict accountability.

“We are not asking the operator to do this on their own,” Hall said. “This is not simply handing over the keys and saying in five years we will see what you did.”

TeamCFA operates 13 charter schools in North Carolina. It will handle some ISD operations while providing curriculum and professional coaching.

Several board members voiced support for AAC, including State Superintendent Mark Johnson.

“I have confidence with Dr. Hall and this process,” Johnson said. “I have confidence in this recommendation.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a board member, said the ISD is an innovative way of turning around low-performing schools. Board members shouldn’t be afraid to take a chance with it.

“If we knew the solution to this problem, we wouldn’t have 505 low performing schools,” Forest said.

“We’ve had a lot of questions, and a lot of questions are going to have to be answered as we go on, but I for one am at a point where I think we can go on and take a calculated risk and go forward.” Board Chairman Bill Cobey said. “I’m going to stick my neck out on that.”

The board ultimately approved AAC, but with a few stipulations. AAC must provide a written statement about its business relationship with TeamCFA, produce monthly summary reports, and provide a current financial audit. The ISD superintendent also will have the final say in approving or removing the school principal.

“It’s been an arduous process to get to this point; that was intentional. We had to make very sure that we had the right fit for the school, students, and community,” Hall said in a press release. “That is critical to our success.”

Lindsay Marchello is a staff writer for Carolina Journal.