Columbus Dispatch readers were shocked, shocked to learn last week that members of Imagine Columbus Primary School’s charter board, protesting that they had no say in negotiating the terms of an operational contract, resigned “en masse” over a lease imposed by the management company that had the school paying $58,000 per month in rent for space to house 150 students, as well as other issues related to the viability of the school.

The board’s action, which did get some attention from the usually somnolent “Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper,” was so dramatic that the Casablanca Prefect of Police might have exclaimed it was time to “round up the usual suspects.”

But Captain Renault and the rest of us don’t have to look too far. In this case, the usual suspect is Imagine Schools, a national for-profit charter school chain founded by Dennis Bakke, a well-known Christian evangelical, and his wife, Eileen.

The Bakkes have found great success with Imagine and its subsidiary, SchoolHouse Finance. But as is the case with many charter school enterprises, success is one thing, and ethics is quite another.

When Ohio politicians find out more about this mass board exodus in the course of their debate on the need for systemic charter school reform, the issue with Imagine that pols and the public must confront is whether this charter school denizen is merely a for-profit national educational enterprise or a national real estate enterprise. Or both.

Or most frightening of all, maybe Imagine is just one of many usual suspects in the netherworld called charterdom or charterworld.

Modeling its predictable behavior when the subject is charter schools, the Dispatch couched the issue in careful language: “The lease is with SchoolHouse Finance, a subsidiary of Imagine Schools Inc., raising questions about a possible conflict of interest.”

Conflict of interest? When the friend of a governor is appointed to a commission to study the feasibility of charter schools and, using his insider knowledge, forms a charter school management company to coincide with the enactment of the legislation, when one of the sponsors of the original charter school legislation works to have it designed so that a political friend and a family member profit from its enactment, and when a private foundation affiliated with a school management company offers free international travel to members of the legislature as a vehicle for influencing favorable charter school legislation, could these be examples of possible conflicts of interest?

Are we shocked, shocked at these examples? Or when the subject is charterworld, can we channel Donald Rumsfeld and say “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Sigh.

Unfortunately, the terms charter school and conflict of interest are becoming synonymous. And redundant. Just mentioning both in the same sentence exposes one of the fatal flaws in the DNA of charter schools and school privatization.

That most fatal of charter schools flaws is called governance.

Unlike traditional public school districts, where elected school board members are charged by law with the oversight of a community’s system of public education, many charter school boards are appointed by the management company, as was the case with Imagine Columbus Primary, when the board decided to hit the exits. What is interesting is the determination of Dennis Bakke to ensure that his vision of public education in terms of a hand-picked charter school board for every one of “his” schools (forget about the term “public” here) is preached to his faithful managers.

In September 2008, Bakke sent his management team a memo that revealed much about his views on who owned the “public” charter schools under his management. This excerpt of an Imagine Schools Inc. internal memo written by Bakke speaks volumes about the mindset of those who seek to privatize public education for private gain.

“What are we learning about the selection and care of board members for our schools? Most Board members become very involved in the life of the school. Often, even before the school begins operation, the Board members have taken “ownership” of the school. Many honestly believe it is their school and that the school will not go well without them steering the school toward “excellence”. They believe they are the “governing” Board even if that adjective to describe the board has never been used by an Imagine School person. Many become involved in the daily life of the school, volunteering and “helping” teachers and other staff to get things done. Even those who are not parents, take “ownership” of the school as if they started it. Initially, they are grateful to Imagine (especially Eileen and me) for helping them start the (their) school. I have been to 3 school openings in the last month where I was thanked for helping the local board start the (our) school. In none of these cases did the board have a major role in “starting” the school. They didn’t write the charter. They didn’t finance the start up of the school or the building. They didn’t find the principal or any of the teachers and staff. They didn’t design the curriculum. In some cases, they did help recruit students.”

Bakke’s use of the word ownership twice in closed quotes seems to imply that he and Imagine Schools Inc. own the schools they operate, aka “public” charter schools. Worse yet, some boards might get a crazy idea that they are “governing” bodies.

Perhaps that’s what happened with the Columbus Primary School board. Since the school is supposedly a “public” charter school, it stands to reason that the school, considered a public school district under Ohio law, needed a governing authority like any other organization that serves the public through the expenditure of public funds.

Since Bakke’s memo was published more than five years ago in a major daily newspaper, one has to wonder where the Ohio Department of Education as well as the school authorizers have been in ensuring that the remaining schools in the Imagine chain have a functioning governing authority.

So just to be clear, is it essential for a public charter school to have a functioning governing authority? Apparently, the former members of the Imagine Columbus Primary School board might have an opinion on the subject.

Imagine that. We owe the former board members our thanks in reminding us that the term Rent is not just about the name of a popular Broadway musical. Who knows, maybe we might even owe Donald Rumsfeld our thanks for explaining what we don’t know about what we don’t know and those unknown unknowns.

After all, we’re talking about charterworld.

 

 

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