Student safety takes a back seat at charter school, but Ohio law offers little protection. Left with no recourse, parents withdraw their children, while the school gets rid of vocal parents.
TCP World Academy, a Pleasant Ridge charter school with a $4.8 million budget, has served students in grades K-6 since 2000. With enrollment of about 500 students, mostly black from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and a favorable reputation built on past test scores, it has the hallmarks of a successful school.
“The word-of-mouth is, ‘TCP is the best school you could put your child in,’” says Jamica Eady, the mother of a first grader. But the word-of-mouth is wrong, Eady says. “Once I realized that my child wasn’t safe and nobody was going to back me up, I pulled her out of the school.”
After repeated pleas to the first-grade teacher and meetings with the assistant principal and TCP superintendent Karen French about her son being bullied in class, A’Shiia Simms says the school remained indifferent to her son who continued to be victimized by a growing number of students. She withdrew him after spring testing and plans to send him to another school next year.
Jaleesa Day’s second-grade daughter told her about a teacher who calls students “stupid” and who once grabbed her arm to keep her from leaving the classroom. Day took her daughter’s allegations to French, but the superintendent was “unapologetic” and shrugged off the allegations. “They’re always right, never wrong,” says Day, who plans to transfer her daughter to another school next year.
Elisha Hogan says she heard about her son’s stab wounds, not from the teachers who call any time he misbehaves, but from her sixth-grade son. When she learned about the offending student’s light punishment for the scissor’s attack, she could not get the attention of the administration until she threatened to press charges with the police. Then, she negotiated the terms of the girl’s suspension with Karen French’s brother, Deryle French, the school administrator responsible for health and discipline.
Superintendent French stonewalls complaints and refuses to explain her actions, parents say, while appeals to the school board are a dead end. And appeals to the state-approved sponsor, Educational Resource Consultants of Ohio, which oversees the school and authorizes its continuing existence, are to no avail.
The school is missing “opportunities to address parents complaints,” says Samantha Diawara, who withdrew her two sons from the first and second grade in February. The board would rather “save face” than take corrective action to demand that the superintendent fix a “hostile environment sustained by overly aggressive staff and lax supervision.”
Charter schools are public, nonprofit, nonsectarian schools exempt from many of the state’s education laws that apply to traditional public school districts.
Accountability to parents for student discipline, teacher misconduct, and other day-to-day operating decisions is “lightly regulated” and comes primarily from the free market, says Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a center-right advocate of charter schools and a charter school sponsor in the state. Through marketplace accountability, the TCP board will suffer the financial consequences of increasingly fewer students until it either responds to parents’ concerns or goes out of business, Churchill says.
In traditional public school districts, the law requires that voters elect school board members to 4-year terms, while members of charter school boards are selected by the board itself according to a process defined by the board.
But charter school boards are not accountable to parents or taxpayers because their members are not elected by voters, says former Democratic state representative, Stephen Dyer, an education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio, a progressive public policy think tank. “They are not beholden to the community of citizens they serve. Their loyalties are to different interests,”
Retired superintendent of the Finneytown Local School District, a traditional public school district, Don Schmidt, says he would meet with parents about any concerns, whether about curriculum, teachers, sports teams, or cheerleading. “I felt it was my ethical duty. Since the public supports the district through tax levies, that also requires us to be open and accountable to the public.”
Charter schools have no need to secure voter approval for their funding. They receive public funding through a state allocation formula, which is based on the traditional public school districts in which charter school students reside. By this formula, Cincinnati Public Schools contributed $3.2 million to TCP in 2015-16 from its state foundation funds and locally-generated revenue, equivalent to $7,200 per TCP student. Collectively, 16 other traditional public school districts contributed more than $500,000. (See table below.)
Even though policymaking is a primary responsibility of a school board, the TCP board has no formal policy for judging and responding to parent or taxpayer complaints. But this is the board’s prerogative in Ohio, where the state defers to local boards in most policy matters.
However, the state does mandate that local boards adopt a policy on bullying, intimidation, and harassment. TCP has a policy on bullying, but it does not comply with state requirements for the definition of bullying, a strategy to protect victims, and procedures to document and investigate reported incidents. Even so, in response to a public records request, TCP’s attorney was able to report that since August 2013, “there were no incidents of bullying that gave rise to reports.”
“Boards are the first line of defense in terms of accountability,” Churchill says. “They are the ones who should be asking the tough questions of the superintendent,” who is responsible for administering board policies and providing feedback on their effectiveness.
But at TCP, family ties built the school, and today family relations strongly influence the board-superintendent relationship, which raises suspicions and erodes trust for some parents and teachers.
“The whole operation was run kind of shady,” says Eady.
“They cover up so much,” says DaKreisha Cavaness, who plans to put her daughter, a first-grader next year, into a different school. “Teachers doing things they have no business doing. Cussing at the kids. Being rude to the kids. Putting hands on the kids.”
“Everything is kept on the hush,” says a former teacher with a masters in special education, who asked to be identified only by her maiden name, Ross. “I learned not to say anything about issues at the school.”
After Karen French and her brother, Deryle French, founded the school as a nonprofit corporation, three of TCP’s five original board members were family members. Karen French was board president and superintendent, Ryan Griffin, a nephew, was board treasurer, and Deryle French was a board member. By the 2006-07 school year, Griffin had been elected board president, and Karen and Deryle French had stepped down from the board.
Griffin was reelected in May 2016 to another 5-year term as board president. The five members average 12.4 years of service on the board. A review of meeting minutes between August 2013 and March 2017 shows that every board decision, but one, was unanimous.
“Group think” infects captive boards that have lost their independence, contends Jane Bond, retired Summit County common pleas judge and former trustee at the University of Akron.
When boards are controlled, “this leads to serious questions about accountability, incentives, and conflicts of interest,” writes Adam Emerson, director of the program on parental choice at Fordham.
The board paid Karen French $175,000 in the 2015-16 school year and $123,000 in rent for properties at 6000, 6008, and 6018 Ridge Rd. that she leases to TCP, according to the nonprofit’s Form 990 filing and the financial audit.
Karen French and Ryan Griffin also share business interests in a preschool, called You Can Read, which is not licensed as a preschool by either of the state’s licensing agencies, according to 4C for Children. Ross, whose son attended YCR during the 2015-16 school year, says parents paid $500 per month per child, $600 if the child was not potty-trained, and payments were to be made in cash.
Board member Virginia Cole says YCR is separate from TCP. But YCR partly operates from a building that French rents to TCP. In another lease signed by French on behalf of the board, TCP and YCR are both named as potential occupants.
Because board president Griffin is not an “immediate relative,” there is no requirement in state law or in the agreement with ERCO, the sponsor, for him to avoid these conflicts of interest, or even disclose them. The state auditor, as part of the annual audit, asks board members and key employees to identify any places of employment other than TCP. Neither French nor Griffin identified YCR as a place of employment.
Conflicts of interest involving Karen French and her relatives have not been a problem, says 17-year board member Cole. Other board members did not respond to requests for interviews. Superintendent French refused to be interviewed for this story and handed over public documents related to personnel, disciplinary actions, and school policies via the school’s attorney.
In the parent handbook, TCP assures parents that it has a school nurse to care for students during a crisis. Ross and most parents interviewed for this story consider Deryle French to be the school nurse. Yet, unknown to many of them, French’s nursing license was suspended indefinitely in 2009 by the Ohio Board of Nursing.
Eady says Deryle French pulled so hard on her daughter’s braid that he yanked it out of the first-grader’s head. She says he defended his actions by saying, “I told her to come with me, but she wouldn’t come.”
At a meeting with Deryle and Karen French, Eady said she wanted to talk about why a grown man had put his hands on her first grader, especially when she “has parents who are willing to work with the school.” But instead, “they wanted to flip it on me,” and they insinuated there was a domestic violence situation at home.
“I left there feeling really defeated,” says Eady.
Eady says she was told she gave TCP the right to use corporal punishment when she signed the parent handbook. But the handbook does not condone corporal punishment, and a charter school parent cannot waive the state’s prohibitions against corporal punishment.
Eady says she filed a written complaint with ERCO, TCP’s sponsor since 2005, but she received no response from ERCO or TCP’s board. ERCO said it could not comment without the exact date of her complaint. Eady says she remembers the events of January 2013 like it was yesterday, but she could not remember or find the exact date of her complaint. ERCO sponsors 23 charter schools in Ohio but it cannot sponsor any additional schools until it improves its state rating of ‘ineffective.’
Independent oversight of charter schools is compromised, says Dyer, because schools pay their sponsors–up to three percent of a school’s state foundation funds–to oversee compliance with state laws. It is a conflict of interest created in legislation. “You can’t have the fox guard the henhouse.”
Diawara alleges that Constance Brown, a teacher with nearly four years of experience at TCP, bullied her sons, inflicting mental and emotional abuse. After informal discussions with Brown and Karen French failed to produce more than an apology, Diawara filed a formal written complaint with ERCO documenting four allegations of bullying.
Diawara was expecting a formal investigation of her complaint and a meeting with the board as she requested, but says she got neither. Instead, she says board president Griffin’s reply mischaracterized her first-grader as having been in “extensive trouble throughout his school career at TCP.” Griffin said Brown was disciplined, but her personnel file contains no disciplinary actions.
The Ohio Department of Education Office of Quality School Choice asked ERCO to conduct a “fair and impartial investigation,” but ERCO affirmed Griffin’s conclusions and closed the matter without saying whether it had conducted an investigation.
The school administration is incompetent and unorganized, and the school is “literally not safe,” Diawara says. “They have created a hostile environment for children and for concerned parents. They would rather get rid of parents like me than change how they operate.”
By Mike Brown, firstname.lastname@example.org