On the upside, we are pleased that we have actually heard from Mr. Wulfson and have included a copy of his letter. We have inserted comments at various points and to assist in distinguishing between the two, have done so in red text.
From Mr. Wulfson:
I am writing in response to your recent emails, requesting clarification regarding the state’s role in overseeing the operation of Commonwealth charter schools in general and the Mystic Valley Charter Public School (MVCPS) in particular.
There are two types of oversight that the Commonwealth has with respect to charter schools. The first type of oversight is to respond to specific individual complaints in which the school is alleged to have violated a law, regulation, or other governing policy. The second type is the more general oversight that the Department (DESE) and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) have as the charter school authorizer in Massachusetts. These two types of oversight are discussed below in more detail.
As we have noted before, the first type of oversight provided by the Commonwealth is shared among a number of state agencies, depending upon the particular subject matter. For example, concerns regarding the open meeting law or the construction bidding statutes are the responsibility of the Office of the Attorney General, the public records law is overseen by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, and the State Ethics Commission oversees the conflict of interest laws.
This Department has a number of separate offices that share in this oversight responsibility. Issues involving special education services, accessibility, or other matters relating to student welfare are reviewed by our Program Quality Assurance unit and complaints regarding student transportation are handled by our School Business Services office. Complaints alleging that a charter school has failed to comply with a specific provision of the charter school statute or regulations are handled by the Charter School Office. To the extent that a complaint alleges a violation of the charter school statute or regulations, the complainant must present that complaint to the school’s board of trustees prior to filing a complaint with the Charter School Office. See 603 CMR 1.10.
In all of the above areas, the oversight agencies require some degree of specificity as to the allegation in question in order to properly investigate and obtain a response from the school. While some parents may be reluctant to be identified as the source of a complaint for fear of reprisal, as a practical matter, anonymous emails or postings on blogs and websites that contain only vague assertions are difficult at best for us to investigate. To cite one example, you have alleged that MVCPS is not meeting its responsibilities to provide bus transportation for students living more than two miles from school. If we had a specific complaint from a parent, with information as to where the student lives and where he or she attends school, we could verify the grade level of the student and the distances and then intervene with the school to ensure that it is meeting its responsibilities.
Unfortunately, a number of us have contacted various departments within the DESE (specifically Jeff K.) to no avail. Also, how many times must the DESE be told that the Board of Trustees at MVRCS refuse to address complaints in a professional, fair, and without repercussions (as we're sure Annie O. can attest to, as one example).
Also, between the information listed here AND the payroll information provided by the Boston Globe, how much more specific information is required before the DESE is willing to look into various conflicts of issues, code of conduct violations, open meeting laws, and the like. We did notice that Mr. Wulfson failed to address the issue as to whether his agency has filed and followed up on the Open Meeting and Executive Session Meeting violations that has been documented.
Oversight as Authorizer
Our second level of oversight relates to our role as the charter authorizer for Massachusetts. The overall performance of every charter school is reviewed every five years; and the BESE makes a decision on whether or not to renew the charter based on the school’s academic performance, organizational viability, and faithfulness to the terms of its charter. A school’s track record in complying with state and federal requirements and in responding appropriately to parent inquiries are two of many factors considered in making a renewal decision. The charter for MVCPS expires in June 2013 and the renewal inspection and decision probably will take place in the 2012-13 school year. During the course of that review, parents and other interested parties will have the opportunity to provide comments to us on the school’s performance.
It is unfortunate that the DESE has taken the position that it will not look into the reported allegations that have been made against the school until the 2012-2013 school year. So much for the students who are not selected for entry into the school as a result of a rigged lottery, or the students who are not receiving the services they require because Neil Kinnon refuses to address his sister-in-laws failure to comply with NCLB laws and the oversight and management of the Special Education Department.
In regards to the comment regarding "parents and other interested parties will have the opportunity to provide comments to us on the school's performance." Oh, he must mean the parents that the school hand selects to attend those meetings, the parents who don't have complaints or who won't speak up against the school. Yes, the same parents who have been invited in the past, and obviously NOT the likes of our friend Annie O. (who we must apologize to for constantly dragging her name back into this) or the other parents who were encouraged to leave the school (you know, those children who weren't expelled but were in danger of being retained). May we suggest now that any and all parents who would like to be heard during the next review write to Mr. Wulfson NOW and ask to be either included in the group meeting or to meet with him individually.
You have asked how to request a financial audit of MVCPS. As you may already know, every charter school is required to have an annual independent audit conducted by a certified public accountant. These audit reports are published as part of each school’s annual report and are available to the public. In extraordinary circumstances where fraud or misappropriation of funds is suspected, the State Auditor does have authority to conduct additional financial investigations. Suggestions that expenditures in certain areas are “excessive,” however, generally do not rise to that level of concern. Both school committees and boards of trustees are given broad discretion in determining the appropriate expenditures for the operation of their respective schools.
Extraordinary circumstances wouldn't be the overpayment of 'Kinnected' individuals and/or those individuals who are paid more than most of our teachers yet show up for about an hour a day (if that)? We would be willing to bet that the school is aware of what would get the attention of the State Auditor and makes sure that those 'expenditures' do not show up on their annual reports. We'd be interested in knowing how much attention and detail (i.e. receipts, overview) is required in the filing of these reports. Mr. Wulfson makes mention of having an CPA conduct an independent audit and we question who the actual CPA is who conducts these audits. One would hope that they must be required to be unassociated and unbiased int their review of financial records.
You have also raised a question regarding the lack of term limits for the trustees on the MVCPS board. DESE recommends that charter school by-laws include such limits, and we require newly chartered schools to include such a provision. We have discussions ongoing with the MVCPS board regarding adding such a provision to their by-laws. Those discussions continue and we continue to urge the school to adopt term limits for its trustees.
But again, other charter schools have had their charter renewal contingent upon, among other things, incorporating term limits into their by-laws. And again we question why MVRCS has not had the same contingency placed upon them. Also, why do the trustees at MVRCS feel that they do not have to answer to the DESE? If new charter schools are required to do so, then so should MVRCS. Oh, that's right, we are dealing with Mr. Neil Kinnon who stated (as seen in our 'Did They Really Say That' column) "The quickest way to be not true to the charter is to not have continuity. Since superintendents come and go, where do you get continuity? You’re able to get that through a long-serving board that has full understanding of the charter. This is what I have told the DOE every year they’ve come in and questioned it.’’ As we stated there, again, Really? Is overpaying and creating jobs for friends, family members and associates staying true to the charter? Is rigging the lottery and ignoring NCLB laws staying true to the charter? Is putting an athletic facility before the logistic and academic needs of students who have outgrown the lower school facility? What about not retaining teachers but only retaining those who are overpaid and underworked as a result of their association with you? Yeah, none of THAT matters!
Finally, I must tell you how personally disturbing it was to read your group’s recent correspondence to Governor Patrick in which you suggest that there might be “pure corruption” here in the Department. My colleagues and I take our responsibilities as public employees very seriously. Such allegations were made not only without any shred of evidence but were inappropriate and unnecessary.
We apologize that you find the actions of parents attempting to ensure laws are being followed as disturbing. We too are disturbed at many things that have and continue to be allowed to happen. We do not feel as though they were made without adequate evidence (specifically other charter schools being held to very different standards and expectations), nor inappropriate and unnecessary. We have written to you on a number of different occasions going back to October 7 and this is the first response we have received. Not to mention that the transportation issue has still NOT been clarified by either you or MVRCS.
I trust that this provides you with the more detailed information that you were seeking. Again, should you require additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me.