South Brunswick Charter approved amid questions surrounding charter operator’s financial conduct and conflicts of interest
After very little discussion, members of the State Board of Education gave final approval today to 26 charter schools  that intend to open in the fall of 2014.
Among those approved today is South Brunswick Charter School, a fourth charter school to be run by Baker A. Mitchell, Jr.
Over the past several months, Brunswick County school district officials have called out Mitchell for profiting heavily off of taxpayer-funded charter schools that offer no new or innovative educational experiences outside of what traditional public schools already offer. Mitchell also serves on the Charter School Advisory Board, which is tasked with reviewing and recommending charter school applications.
The impact on Brunswick’s local schools
Public charter schools were intended to provide alternative educational settings for those who desire a different curricular approach to education or who need specialized attention. To accomplish these goals, charter schools receive taxpayer funds based on the number of students they enroll. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools have few accountability requirements and are not obligated to explain in detail how they spend their tax dollars.
During the charter school application review process, local school districts have the opportunity to submit impact statements for members of the Charter School Advisory Board and the State Board of Education to take into account as they consider approving the opening of a charter school. Impact statements usually explain how the local public school could be negatively affected by the opening of a charter school.
Last year, lawmakers did away with language allowing the local school district to submit impact statements, but Office of Charter Schools director Joel Medley indicated to board members yesterday that his office would continue to accept them and forward them to board members for their consideration during the review process.
South Brunswick Charter School, approved to offer grades K-6 beginning this fall in southeastern Brunswick County, asserts in its charter application  that it will provide students with an educational experience that differs in what the local public school can offer. That includes differentiated instruction based on student ability, an orderly and disciplined setting, and “teachers will teach on their feet and not in their seat.”
The impact statement  written by Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Dr. Edward Pruden indicates he doesn’t believe the proposed charter school can offer anything that his public schools aren’t already doing.
“The entire application for South Brunswick Charter School is a weak replication of the core values and instructional practices of Brunswick County Schools. There is no evidence of innovative practice,” said Pruden.
When South Brunswick Charter School opens this fall, the local public school district could lose more than $2.5 million to start, and double that as the school expands, according to Pruden’s impact statement.
Pruden also explained that the funds redirected to South Brunswick Charter School will not result in the provision of the same level of services to those students as his public school system currently provides. Some examples of those services include transportation and disability support services.
“Brunswick County Schools provide services to all who enter, regardless of social and emotional need or cognitive ability. Reduction of funding impacts programs and services to support additional programs such as school nursing, social workers, counseling, and psychological support,” explained the impact statement.
Conflicts of interest
South Brunswick Charter School will be operated by the Roger Bacon Academy and will rent property from Coastal Conservancy, LLC. Baker A. Mitchell Jr.—who happens to sit on the Charter School Advisory Board—owns both of those entities.
Mitchell, who currently operates three other public charter schools in the state, paid himself nearly $1.8 million in 2012 for what he characterized as “management fees” to the IRS for running Charter Day School. He has reportedly collected in the neighborhood of $16 million over a five-year period in management fees alone, according to Pruden’s impact statement
All of that money, of course, is taxpayer funds. But Mitchell doesn’t have to explain how, for example, he used $630,696 of taxpayer dollars for staff development, as reported on his 2012 Form 990.
Reached by email, Mitchell justified his costs in simple terms. “Charter Day School collected less money per pupil and spent a lower percentage on overhead while producing significantly better academic results,” he said.
Pruden has pleaded his case directly to the State Board of Education, raising concerns over not only the fiscal impact that the creation of South Brunswick Charter School would have on his district, but also over the conflict of interest related to Baker Mitchell’s presence on the Charter School Advisory Board while profiting from the charter schools he runs and seeks to open.
Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey responded to Pruden’s pleas late last month, telling him to resolve the conflict of interest issue at the local level.
“On behalf of the SBE members, I write to encourage you to work within your community to resolve the disputes confronting your district,” wrote Cobey.
Cobey explained that Mitchell was appointed to the Charter School Advisory Board by a matter of law and that the State Ethics Commission found no actual conflicts of interest – only six potential conflicts, which include running and owning a company that operates charter schools and serving on the board of one of those charter schools.
North Carolina State Treasurer Janet Cowell expressed concern for local school districts as she voted to approve the 26 new charter schools.
“There is a tipping point for LEAs,” cautioned Cowell, explaining that in school districts where there are high concentrations of charter schools, students’ educational experiences in traditional public schools could be compromised as funds are siphoned away from those budgets and into the coffers of charters.
Each approved charter school must now complete a “Ready to Open ” process, submitting evidence by May 2014 that demonstrates readiness to be a fully functioning charter school. If charter operators have difficulty reaching enrollment goals, hiring staff, or securing facilities, further review of their proposal may take place.
South Brunswick’s charter, along with the others approved today, will officially begin July 1 with a five-year duration.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-861-1460 or at firstname.lastname@example.org