King of the Castle

What kind of school demands $6,000 in *liquidated damages* from a teacher who changed jobs? This kind of school…

Image result for mystic valley regional charter schoolWhen I heard the story of a teacher at Massachusetts’ largest charter school who received a $6,087 *bill* from said school after he let them know that he wouldn’t be returning to teach there this fall, I had to know more. Surely there had to be some kind of mistake or miscommunication, and by *we’re claiming liquidated damages,* the school really meant *thanks for your years of service and good luck at your new job.* So I did what anyone playing the part of a journalist on the Internet can do. I contacted the teacher and asked him if he would consent to a tell-all on my blog. To which his lawyer said *please don’t.* But I was still left with another unanswered query—call it Question 2—what kind of a school goes after a teacher like this anyway? It’s field trip time, reader, and we’re off to a mystical land known as the Mystic Valley.

The other kind of charters
In our endless, frenzied debate over whether or not to expand charter schools in Massachusetts, there is one varietal that you haven’t heard much about. While scriveners near and far scriven away about our inCREDOble urban charter success stories, the suburban stars have been given short shrift. Those
would be the subset of schools begun by middle-class parents to provide a private-school type education to their own kids at public school prices. Often offering the kinds of specialized programming that middle class parents crave—
international baccalaureate! STEM! Chinese immersion!—these schools are known for looking, well, just a little bit different from their sending districts.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Our story starts nearly two decades ago when a tight knit group of friends and family members known as *the founders* founded the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School or MVRC with the aim of providing *a world-class education characterized by a well-mannered, disciplined and structured academic climate,* informed by the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And the school soon amassed what are in these parts the coin of the realm: high MCAS scores, not to mention accolades from the likes of US News and World Report, which declared MVRC one of the best high schools in the country. But even as the waiting list grew—look kids, the longest in the state!—complaints from parents and other *stakeholders* began to pile up. By 2013, state education officials had amassed more than 338 pages worth of *inquiries,* not including concerns registered by phone, or the ones collected and shared by parents on this anonymous parent-run website. So what were parents complaining about?

  • Special education services, denial of;
  • English Language Learners, complete lack of;
  • Teachers, high turnover of;
  • Property all over Malden, snapping up of (in cash, which seems, um, kind of strange);
  • Open meeting laws, ignoring of;
  • Friends and family of founders, hiring of/preferential treatment of;
  • Admissions lottery, odds-defying nature of, especially when concerning founders, friends and family of;
  • Communication with board, difficulty of;
  • Spending priorities, nature of (see $12 million athletic facility, building of)
  • Student club and athletic team fees, high cost of;
  • Day-to-day management of the school, interference in
  • Parents and students who complained, repercussions against, nudging towards door of

In which we pause briefly to consider one downside of the charter model
Let’s pause here briefly to consider why these parents have been deluging state officials with their complaints. You see, because charter schools are autonomous, overseen by their hand-picked boards, parents who have issues with the school and its management have no choice but to bring their complaints to the friends-and-family-esque Board of Directors. Which can be *awkward,* not to mention difficult, because of the board’s penchant for conducting much of its business out of view of the public. The state, meanwhile, doesn’t have much leverage either. While it can step in when the law is being broken or non-complied with, there is no statutory penalty for what might best be described as *dick-ish-ness.* Add in the fact that Mystic Valley is awash in the very treasure that the state most treasures these days—high MCAS scores and a long wait list—and, well, you see where this is not going. As for those unhappy parents, they have a choice: suck it up or *vote with their feet.*

While the state can step in when the law is being broken or non-complied with, there is no statutory penalty for what might best be described as *dick-ish-ness.* Add in the fact that Mystic Valley is awash in the very treasure that the state most treasures these days—high MCAS scores and a long wait list—and, well, you see where this is not going.

Image result for neil kinnon malden maWell, there was one thing the state could do. You see, it was the fondest wish of the founders to *grow* the school to meet the demands of the ever growing longer wait list (did I mention that it’s the longest in the state?), and besides, there was all of that new property hanging around. To which the chief state official, Mitchell D. Chester, said: *DENIED! Not until you do something about your clear record of insularity and opaque decision making.* Thus kicked off a years-long war between the state and the school’s founder, Neil Kinnon, who, somehow found the time when he wasn’t micromanaging the school he founded to 1) serve as Malden City Councilor (raising various conflict of interest-type thingies) and 2) run for state rep, a campaign that, while attracting few voters, did draw the support of—wait for it—Democrats for Education Reform. Oh, and the fresh-faced youth handing out Kinnon fliers at campaign events? Those were Mystic Valley students fulfilling the school’s community service requirement. Which seems like a clear conflict of interest. Neil Kinnon, what say you?

*I don’t see it as a conflict of interest because it’s completely voluntary. Nobody has to come, nobody’s coerced into coming; nor are they for anything else that any other organization or any other person, you know, has used them in the past.*

He’s baaaaaaaaaaack
In the interest of brevity, I will rocket through what happened next. The board got slightly less insular and opaque-y and even got a new chairman, who
was not founder-in-chief Neil Kinnon. To which the state said:  *OK—ya’ll can expand.* Minutes after which Kinnon
figured out a way to get re-re-elected as chairman of the board, resulting in the dramatic resignation of the new chairman we introduced a mere two sentences again. As former chair Fran Brown explains in the resignation letter he made public: *I don’t think the board was acting in the best interests of the school or the students, and that’s why I didn’t feel like being part of that.*

Let’s return to the original question that kicked off this story, shall we? What kind of school goes after a teacher the way that Mystic Valley Regional Charter School has gone after this teacher, to the tune of $6087 to be precise? I think we have the answer to that, reader. But another question remains unaddressed. Is it typical for a charter school to require its teachers to sign contracts with *non disparagement* and *liquidated damages* clauses and, in the case of Mystic Valley, *non-compete* language discouraging teachers from taking jobs in sending districts? The Mass. Teachers Association wondered that as well, so they sent a public records request to the state asking to see the employment contracts that DESE is supposed to collect and make publicly available. Alas, the MTA was informed that: *for most charter schools, DESE does not possess copies of the current personnel contracts.*

At last, reader, we have reached our final question. If the state can’t monitor the publicly-funded, privately run schools it oversees now, what’s going to happen when it’s expanding the stable at a clip of 12 new schools a year? Did someone mention Question 2? Why I believe that’s the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, now the largest charter school in the state, asking parents to *like* the Governor’s passionate appeal for lifting the charter cap and share it on their own Facebook pages. The clear violation of the state’s prohibition on using public resources for campaign purposes is just the sort of thing that could get Mystic Valley in trouble with the state—again—that is, if anyone was watching. Anyone? Anyone?

Editor’s note: since I posted this piece, I’ve heard from a number of parents and former teachers at the school notifying me about various details that I missed in the story. I can’t include them all but am adding a few eye poppers and will continue to update as new information comes across the transom.

One reader pointed out that Kinnon has led the charge against affordable housing in Malden, arguing that there is a *direct correlation between low incomes and special education rates.*

Another noted that I left a key piece of property out of the MVRC portfolio: the city fire station, a purchase that was made while Kinnon was city fire commissioner. 

Send tips, comments and portfolio expansion opportunities to jennifer@haveyouheardblog.com Like my work? Help me do more of it. 

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18 Comments

  1. The west side of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley are two other examples of whole charter districts that are essentially private schools paid for with taxpayer money. Re-segregation is a thing.

  2. When you say “You see, because charter schools are autonomous, overseen by their hand-picked boards…”, you don’t actually mean all charters, right? Most charter schools in Wisconsin are run by locally elected school boards, and by state law, all charter schools in Kansas (including Walton Rural Life Charter School) are run by locally elected school boards. So what you really meant is that some charter schools are autonomous, overseen by their hand-picked boards.

    I suppose that you could make an argument that many local school boars are, in fact, “riends-and-family-esque”, but perhaps that is not an argument that you want to make.

    1. There’s no statewide, transparent public election process for charter school boards in MA, which is clearly what is under discussion in this article

      1. Jessica,

        When I see the a statement about “charter schools”, I assume it is about charter schools, not just charter schools in Massachusetts that are not Horace Mann charter schools. Again, the word some might be useful.

    2. Uh, I will rush to my fellow Bay Stater’s defense. All “commonwealth” charter schools in our fair commonwealth are privately-run by their own hand-picked boards. The Dept. of Ed. visits for 1-2 days every one or so years and appears to look over their financial statements once a year. There may be a bit of other oversight, but I have yet to hear back from the department as to what it is. No need for fully-licensed teachers, no need to turn back excess funds at the end of the year like the public-public schools, no need to help the sending districts balance their !@#$%& budgets every fiscal year.

      1. Indeed if the sentence in question had been that “You see, because all commonwealth charter schools in Massachusetts are autonomous, overseen by their hand-picked boards….”, there would be less room for dispute. Yet, that is not the sentence in the post. The word “some” is a very useful word.

        As a non-licensed teacher with multiple decades of experience, I should take exception to your implied concern about licensing. If non-licensed teachers are good enough for Obama’s children at Sidwell Friends and good enough for everyone’s children at the post secondary level, why is it not good enough for student’s who come from families that can not afford to attend Sidwell Friends?

    3. teachingeconomist – I believe you are incorrect about the governance structure of charter school boards in Wisconsin. http://dc.uwm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1334&context=etd

      In addition to the public school boards in the selected states, surveys were sent to school board members governing charter schools operating in Wisconsin and Michigan. Charter school boards differ from district school boards in several substantive ways. Most important, board members are appointed and not elected. Second, charter school boards usually oversee a single school rather than a system of schools. Third, charter schools receive less state and local aids than traditional public schools.

      1. Lee,

        The dissertation you link to surveyed the 18 independent charter schools in Wisconsin that existed when the dissertation was written and reports the results in chapter 8, but independent charter schools are a minority of charter schools in the state.

        You can find a current list of Wisconsin charter schools and authorizing organizations here: http://dpi.wi.gov/sms/charter-schools/current . About 10% of charter schools in Wisconsin are 2r charter schools, that is schools that are independent of the elected school board (The City of Milwaukee authorizes 10, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee authorizes 13, and University of Wisconsin-Parkside authorizes 1). The remaining 218 charter schools in the state are authorized by the elected local school board.

    4. Are you conflating direct, day-to-day oversight of a charter’s board of directors and authorization and general oversight of a (sometimes) elected school board? It’s fair to say that there are two very different levels in charter situations.

      In Tennessee, the school board authorizes charter schools. The local school boards have some oversight with regards to general financial and academic accountability, but the direct, day-to-day oversight falls to the charter’s own board of directors. The charter’s board is hand-picked and usually, like a lot of non-profits, made up of donors and people of influence. From my understanding, charters in WI, and others where the district is primary if not only authorizor, work in the same way.

      I think it’s a more than a little misleading to say that oversight falls directly on the elected school board, it does to some degree but it largly falls on the unelected charter board of directors. In Tennesse that’s created problems, particularly with the ASD (which is a district, is an authorizer, is charged with broad oversight, but does not have an elected school board) as a lot of power and control has shifted to the charter boards and accountability away from the district. That’s why three charters have been able to pull out of the state-turnaround district either in the 11th hour before operation or, with the latest instance, with Gestalt pulling out a couple years after operation.

      1. Ezra,

        Day to day oversight of traditional public schools is not done by the elected school board. The day to day oversight is done by salaried employees of the school district.

        In Wisconsin, the 218 charter schools authorized by the local school boards do not have a separate board because the elected school board is the charter school’s board of directors. The faculty and staff of the charter school are all employees of the local school district. Please see this short publication by the Wisconsin Education Association Council: http://weac.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/What-are-charter-schools.pdf

        Different states have different laws and different practices. That is why it is nearly impossible to make a claim about “charter schools” as a group.

        1. You are correct that the day to day operation of TPSs are not done by the board. Thanks for the clarification, but realize I didn’t intimate that they were.

          As for the 218 charter schools, I went through this list (http://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/sms/Charter-Schools/16-17%20List%20of%20All%20schools%20for%20Web.xlsx) before replying the first time. I did a very unscientific quick googling of a dozen or so random charters and each one had it’s own board of directors (sometimes called a governance board). Now this independent board of directors that sets specific policy, procedure, curriculum, etc. is the standard for all charter schools I’ve ever seen and I’d really press you to provide evidence of a charter school without an independent board where, as you said, the school board is the board of directors. In fact, this independent board is one of the critical underpinnings of an independent charter school.

          As for employment, I will take you at your word on that one. It’s similar to TN where the employee of a charter is an employee of the district (at least outside of the ASD, that may be different). However, much as it is with TPS, the teacher is hired specifically by a principal to work at a school. He or she may in turn be fired from said school by said principal. As both TN and WI are Right to Work states, there’s little protection for at-will firings in such cases. So it really is between the principal and teacher rather than teacher and district.

          To be quite honest, I’m not sure I follow you. Your thesis doesn’t seem to hold up to the facts of common practice among charters. It does seem to be conflating board of directors with school boards and the actions and responsibilities of the two parties. It seems you live in WI and I’d be happy to defer, but it seems the charter schools in WI operate in the same manner (at least where governance and oversight is concerned) as those in TN and those in MA. So while you may be correct on certain details, I haven’t seen any evidence contrary to the point Berkshire makes.

          1. I am not in Wisconsin and so I am doing my research using the net. There are two basic types of charter schools: independent or “2r” charter schools (there are 22 of these schools) and charter schools that are established through the locally elected school board of the district where the charter school will be located (there are over 200 of these charter schools).

            The locally elected school board can establish a charter school and decide if the charter school will be an instrumentality of the district. If the local elected school board decides the school will be an instrumentality of the district, the board must employ all the personal for the charter school. If the locally elected school board decides not to make the charter school an instrumentality of the district, the board can not employ any of the personal at the school. I have not found a breakdown of the number of charter schools established by locally elected school boards that are an instrumentality of the district and the numbers that are not an instrumentality of the district.

            Individuals may petition the school board to create a charter school, but to be considered the petition must be signed by 10% of the teachers in that district or 50% of the teachers at a particular school in that district. If the locally elected school board allows the establishment of the charter school, the school and the locally elected school board negotiate a contract between the district and the school. There are a number of provisions that must be included in the contract, but the locally elected school board is free to add additional provisions to the contract that it deems necessary.

            The locally elected school board can revoke the charter schools license if the board finds that

            a. the school violates the contract with the district
            b. student fail to make sufficient progress towards the educational goals of the state
            c. the school fails to comply with generally accepted accounting standards of fiscal management or
            d. the school violated the charter law

            The source for this information is here: http://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/sms/Charter-Schools/LFB%20Info%20Paper%2027-Jan%202015.pdf

  3. We love you, Jennifer Berkshire! Who knew charter schools could be just SO DANGED ENTERTAINING? One thing I particularly love is how they seem to grow richer every year, like this one: Mystic Valley’s “change in net position” between FY15 and FY16 is $1.4 million (scroll to page 14, for you data geeks): http://www.mvrcs.com/ourpages/auto/2014/10/16/53213226/FY16%20Annual%20Report%20Final.pdf
    Wait! That’s exactly the tuition that leaves our regional school district every year for charter schools! So THAT’S where all the money goes!

  4. I’m voting YES, because I choose to believe in the charter system as a whole and not form my decision based on a few bad apples.
    Links, stats, bogus facts… I’ll ride with my real-life experiences in both the public and charter system.

  5. I’d still like to know – why do some charter schools get better results? If we know the answer to the “why”, then shouldn’t those things- whatever they are – be applied to other charter and public schools that aren’t doing as well? I see proponents pointing to test scores- that’s great- but, is it a random thing, or is there something that can be applied learned?

    1. One technique that Mystic Valley has used very effectively is to cultivate a student body that is fluent in the language of instruction. Meaning that despite being surrounded by some of the most diverse and immigrant communities in the state, Mystic Valley has managed never to have students who are still learning English. Through last year, their ELL percentage shows up in the state data as a zero – which I’d never seen before. Obviously that’s a hard best practice to pull off at a system level… OK – I’m yanking your chain 🙂 The real problem is that the definition of “better results” is way too narrow. It’s how you end up with a school like this being defined as a “best school,” and creating parent demand, which then reinforces bad policy.

  6. Thanks for this post. Of course laws and operational realities are different in different states. People need to look at what their state is doing and also look at other states for lessons learned. The focus here is ballot Question 2 facing Massachusetts voters November 8. (I’m voting NO.) Massachusetts is thought by many to have very stringent charter school oversight, but…the problems described here still occur, and other towns and cities have worse problems. While SOME students, I am told, get a great education at MVCS, we need a public school system that serves all students equally and is accountable to residents. (The elected School Committee has no voice in how MVCS operates.) Everyone is in favor of offering a variety of educational experiences and fostering innovation. Everyone agrees that public schools have room for improvement, and that schools that don’t serve students should be reformed. The question is how to get to where we want to be. This is not the way.

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