New Charter School Review Board prepares to flex its authority

By: - August 31, 2023 12:00 pm
The North Carolina Education Building

The North Carolina Education Building in Raleigh. (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

A new Charter School Review Board created by Republican lawmakers could soon get a chance to flex its muscle.

Established under House Bill 618, the review board assumes many of the oversight responsibilities of the State Board of Education. It has the power to grant, amend, terminate and renew charter applications.

The Review Board replaces the Charter School Advisory Board, which had limited powers. It only made recommendations to the state board, and didn’t have the authority to approve, terminate, amend or renew charters.

A provision in the new law also allows charter applicants to request that the Review Board reconsider state board decisions made after July 1, 2022, in cases where they contradicted the advisory panel’s recommendations.

Office of Charter Schools Director Ashley Baquero confirmed in an email that two applicants have asked the review board to reconsider their applications, after having received unfavorable rulings from the state board. Baquero did not name the applicants in an email response to questions about the process. The Review Board will reconsider those applications when it meets Sept. 12 and 13.

Office of Charter Schools Director Ashley Baquero

NC Newsline, however, learned that Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy — Wake County is one of the applicants that has asked for reconsideration.

The state board denied the application in March, citing concerns about school leader Kashi Bazemore’s management of a charter school in Bertie County. The school was low-performing and was assumed by another charter operator in 2018. It permanently closed in 2022.

The state boards rejected HCLA-Wake’s application to open a 600-student, K-8 school in northeastern Wake County, despite the Charter School Advisory Board’s unanimous recommendation for approval. Most of the new review board members served on CSAB, so Bazemore is hopeful the state board’s decision will be overturned.

“We are grateful for this legislation that has allowed us to be at a place of having our charter application reconsidered,” Bazemore told NC Newsline. “We did have concerns about the way the State Board of Education handled the authorization process and we’re grateful for the place we’re in today.”

Bazemore has good reason to be hopeful. Charter School Advisory Board members praised HCLA-Wake’s board of directors and charter application, even as they shared concerns about Bazemore’s leadership in Bertie County.

In March, Dave Machado, a member of the new review board who also served on the advisory board when it recommended approval for HCLA-Wake’s charter, told colleagues that Bazemore’s leadership skills have improved since she was in charge of the Bertie County school. Machado is the former director of the Office of Charter Schools and was in charge when the Bertie County school changed hands.

“We need to take into consideration mistakes in the past, but I don’t think they ought to be penalized when there’s a path to run a better school this time,” Machado said.

Machado stepped down from his state post a year ago to become the North Carolina state director for Charter Schools USA, a for-profit charter school management company based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is an North Carolina House-appointee to the charter board.

Kashi Bazemore (Photo via Facebook)

Former charter board Chairwoman Cheryl Turner also noted Bazemore’s personal and professional growth during the CSAB’s meeting in March.

“What we’re seeing now is just very different from what we’ve seen in the past, very positive in terms of the possibility of this being successful,” Turner said.

The reception Bazemore received at the state board was much different.

“During her time as executive director of HCLA-Bertie [from] fall of 2014 to the summer of 2018, Dr. Bazemore-Hall showed that she was unable to properly run a successful school to the point where the school’s charter had to be revoked for malfeasance,” former state board member Amy White said. “I personally would feel irresponsible if I voted to grant Dr. Hall the opportunity to have another [school] given her opportunity to have success at a school for four years and her failure to do so.”

Bazemore-Hall was Bazemore’s married name when she led the school in Bertie County.

After the state board voted down HCLA-Wake’s charter application, Bazemore went on the attack. She accused White of being unable to fairly judge HCLA-Wake’s application because White was a member of the Wake County Board of Education when Bazemore worked for that school district as an assistant principal. During Bazemore’s tenure there, she said had a “legal situation” that resulted in her filing a sexual harassment claim against her boss.

The controversial history of HB 618

HB 618 was among a slate of contentious Republican backed bills to expand school choice approved this session by the General Assembly.

Bill sponsor, Rep. Tricia Cotham, R-Mecklenburg, argued that the creation of the new review panel streamlines the charter approval and oversight processes. “However, the most important thing that this bill does is it puts kids first,” said Cotham, one of the state’s leading school-choice proponents. “It ensures that the outdated concept of one size fits all in education is not the case in North Carolina.”

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed HB 618, contending the state Constitution gives the state board oversight authority for public schools, including charter schools.

“This bill is a legislative power grab that turns that responsibility over to a commission of political friends and extremists appointed by Republican legislators, making it more likely that faulty or failing charter schools will be allowed to operate and shortchange their students,” Cooper said.

State board Chairman Eric Davis

State board Chairman Eric Davis also opposed the legislation. In a letter to lawmakers, Davis said the current process “clearly shows that quality charter school proposals with the recommendation of CSAB and the background provided by the [NC Department of Public Instruction] DPI’s Office of Charter Schools, are receiving a fair review.”

Of the 149 charter applications CSAB recommended for approval since 2013, Davis noted, the state board has approved more than 90%.

“Moreover, as the only education body with the Constitutional responsibility for all public schools, charter and traditional, the SBE is uniquely positioned to weigh the issues for all NC students within charter requests,” Davis wrote in his letter to lawmakers.

More often than not, as Davis pointed out in his letter to lawmakers, the state board has followed CSAB recommendations. But the board had increasingly begun to take issue with them.

Earlier this month, the state board denied Dogwood Classical Academy’s request to relocate to to Iredell County. The K-8 school is scheduled to open next year in Cabarrus County. School officials requested the move to Iredell County after having trouble finding an affordable location in Cabarrus County.

The state’s board’s no vote came despite CSAB unanimous recommendation to approve the move.

In January, the state board caused a stir when it rejected the application of American Leadership Academy in Monroe. Charter One, the school’s influential educational management organization, pushed back.

Michael Way, Charter One’s southeastern division president, said in a column published by the conservative John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Journal, that the state board’s vote “appeared to be strictly based on politics.”

State Sens. Todd Johnson and David Craven, both of whom represent districts covering Union County, took the extraordinary step of sponsoring a bill to overturn the state board’s vote denying ALA Monroe applicants a charter. Senate Bill 230 remains in committee.

The ALA Monroe applicants claimed to have 1,000 families prepared to enroll in the school.

“Like you, we are deeply disappointed and disheartened by this decision, especially after receiving approval twice through the Charter School Advisory Board,” the applicants posted on the school’s Facebook page in January. “We understand that this outcome directly attacks your school choice and all parents’ school choice in the Monroe community. However, we are still exploring alternative options.”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.

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