STARS Board Works to Address Problems
Communication is now the key word for the STARS school board, its teachers and parents of students.
After receiving complaints from parents and teachers about the board's unwillingness to respect term limits and to properly hold open meetings, the N.C. Office of Charter Schools found the board to be out of compliance with its own bylaws and placed it on "governance probationary status" July 16.
The status requires the board to comply with its bylaws by June 30, 2011, by providing the Office of Charter Schools with information that is normally required by the state open meetings law, such as proper notice of regularly scheduled and specially called meetings, along with making meeting minutes available.
The board is also required to take steps to implement proper term limits. All of the board's members have exceeded their maximum of two terms on the board. Each term lasts two years.
During a meeting held Friday afternoon at Sandhills Business Park in Aberdeen, Jack Moyer, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools in the Department of Public Instruction, lead a training session to address board conduct, open meetings law and compliance dealing with governance.
"We're all aware that there are a lot of issues going on," Moyer said to the board and the parents lining the walls in the small conference room.
Moyer described a perceived "founder's syndrome" at STARS, saying that it is common for founding charter boards to find difficulty relinquishing their authority and passing it on after being in office for a long time.
Several parents of STARS students agree.
Amy Stonesifer, a parent and former employee at STARS, is a parent who has been very vocal about the board's actions. Stone-sifer said that though the board has been making significant personnel changes at the school, it has not made its deliberations accessible to teachers or parents.
Meetings were often scheduled without proper notice at times of day that make it hard for working parents and teachers to attend. Meeting locations also did not effectively accommodate the public and were sometimes not handicap accessible.
"They needed to come into compliance and respect other people's views," she said. "They shouldn't treat us like we're not in a democracy here."
Stonesifer and other parents called and e-mailed the Office of Charter Schools after becoming frustrated with the board's indifference to their requests.
"It just really led to this," she said. "Parents felt like they needed to stand up for the teachers because the teachers really had no voice."
Moyer added that a lot of misinformation from both parents and the board have fueled the situation. He said that regaining compliance would be a step toward more open lines of communication for both parties.
"If the board doesn't know, that's their responsibility to find out what's going on," Moyer said.
Board Under Gun
Board treasurer Bonnie McPeake said the board was taking on its responsibility to find out what was going on when it began intervening in school business.
According to McPeake, the board began noticing odd things happening during the previous school year.
"The appearance of our leadership at the school was not good, so we came down on everybody," McPeake said. "We put new policies in place and new procedures with financial and reporting, and we started getting on top of everything."
McPeake said the board had to seize a school credit card from an employee and discovered the hiring of several staff members that were not approved by the board along with a conflict of interest issue in the hiring of a family member by an administrator.
Simultaneous-ly, the board was trying to implement new strategies for improving the school's end-of-grade test scores.
McPeake said that parent and teacher complaints came about because the board began restructuring.
"The people directly affected got it stirred up, and all the attention was diverted to the board," she said.
State Denies Changes
The board first learned that it was out of compliance with term limits back in May, when Jean Kruft, a representative from the Office of Charter Schools, instructed the board to make amendments to its bylaws in order to regain compliance.
"As soon as we realized it, we made amendments to our bylaws to make us in compliance," McPeake said.
During its June meeting, the board made several amendments to the bylaws, including the extension of each member's term by two to four years. The board also eliminated the parent and teacher representative positions, reducing the size of the board from nine to six members, including the chairman, who would only vote to break a tie.
Board members extended their term limits in order to begin the process of rotating off old members that would, in their view, allow them to comply with the bylaws and also adhere to the requirement that only one third of the board members be replaced at a time.
To officially amend charter bylaws, boards must have their amendments approved by the State Board of Education. The amendments made at the June meeting were not approved because they were board members serving with expired terms who voted on them.
Also, the removal of a STARS teacher representative from the board was in direct violation of the bylaws, which requires that a staff member always hold a seat on the board.
During the training session, Moyer recommended that the board reinstate the two board members eliminated at the June meeting, since the State Board of Education did not approve the bylaw amendment eliminating the position.
He also recommended that one board member resign, and that the three remaining members rotate off.
This process would allow the board to maintain three members that have a year left in their terms, while also having one vacant position to fill, along with six other positions that will become available.
The whole process would allow the board to become compliant with the Office of Charter Schools by October.
Moyer also recommended that the board establish grievance policies for parents, teachers and administrators, to ensure that there are forums for discussion between the board and the school community.
'Favoritism Going On'
STARS parent Dilles Walker said he doesn't believe that the board is the main problem for the charter school. He feels that poor end-of-grade test scores are more important than a board overstaying its term limits.
"This was misdirected," Walker said. "I honestly believe instead of being directed at the problem, it was being directed at the solution."
According to preliminary end-of-grade test scores, STARS missed its Annual Yearly Progress goal, an assessment mandated by No Child Left Behind, by three targets for the 2009-2010 school year.
"I honestly believe that there was favoritism going on, which was not necessarily teachers hired for the intent of the children," Walker said. "It was teachers hired for the intent of other people within the program."
Walker expressed serious concern for the well-being of his son, who will be a fourth-grader this year. He said that though his son did well on his end-of-grade tests, many of his classmates did not.
Walker also said that because his son never brought homework home during the school year, he had no way of monitoring his son's progress in school.
"I can't say that he can't do it because he passed," Walker said.
After the meeting, Moyer said he realizes that the board's members care about what goes on at STARS, but he said the board is still accountable for implementing proper procedure.
"I don't think that [the board is] trying to do things wrong," he said. "I just think it's a case of they weren't on top of reading their own bylaws and staying on top of those things. They can't blame the state for that. They can't blame anybody for that."
Moyer went on to say that the Office of Charter Schools grants charter school boards the autonomy they seek, but, in return, the office expects schools to meet their primary goal of effectively educating students.
"Our job is not to control the schools," Moyer said. "We don't micromanage the schools. Our job is to monitor and make sure they're within compliance and then it's up to the school as to whether they're going to perform or not perform."
After the meeting, parents asked Moyer what they could do to make sure that similar situations with the board do not arise again. He stressed the importance of open communication between the board, administrators, teachers and parents.
"You have to work with the school and the administration to try and continue to have the goals that they've set out to take place," Moyer said.
Though a lot of uncertainty still remains before the start of a new school year Aug. 24, Stonesifer feels a little more optimistic about the situation now that the board is under pressure to change, but she refuses to let her guard down just yet.
"I think that things are going to change now, at least I hope so," Stonesifer said. "But I can definitely tell you that they showed their true colors."
Contact Hannah Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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