First I learned about a strange and mysterious place called Area 51. Two weeks ago I learned about yet another place identified by a number.

There are some things that you just can’t make up. Here’s one for the books, a happenstance that Mel Brooks or Woody Allen couldn’t imagine.

At the very time I finished reading a Cleveland Plain Dealer article on the latest machinations of the charter school industry, where a charter school organization is splitting off from its parent body so that it can continue doing business on the Dark Side, my cellphone went off. The call displayed 234 as the area code, which made me think that it was someone calling from the Akron area.

Hmm, Akron. Maybe it was David Brennan calling to invite me to invest in White Hat. On second thought, maybe not.

But a closer look revealed that it wasn’t a call from within the Buckeye State. Instead of Akron, the second line on the phone display listed a place name – Ibadan.

This is one place name I had to look up.

It turns out that Ibadan is a city in Nigeria, and the country code for Nigeria is 234. Could the caller have been that fabled Nigerian prince who needs my personal information in order to send a wad of cash he’s been holding for me?

No, you can’t make this stuff up. Just when you’re reading about the usual and customary deflection and indirection in the Ohio charter school industry, aka the Wild, Wild West, a call arrives from Nigeria, a capital of the scamming industry.

Cue The Twilight Zone theme.

Who knows? Had I answered that call from Ibadan, I might have met that Nigerian prince, a dynamic guy who could have held my money while I searched for hidden treasure waiting to be found in Butte, Montana. Or maybe in his hometown of Ibidan.

Another possibility: Maybe the  prince wanted me to invest in a charter school somewhere.

Could it be that this phone call from Nigeria, which arrived at the moment when I completed reading a story about another charter school bamboozle, somehow was a harbinger for me to pay even closer attention to the machinations of the Dark Side known as charterdom? This, after suffering fatigue from trying to follow, let alone read and write about, one charter school scandal after another.

Gimme a break.

Calls from Nigeria, combined with solid reporting on the checkered charter school industry by the Plain Dealer and now, by the newly invigorated Columbus Dispatch, evoke some reflection on how money, like love, makes the world go round. And since the subject is always about money when it comes to charter schools, Ohio residents are slowly coming to the realization about the enormity of a new industry that was created by the Ohio legislature at the expense of local communities through appropriation of local tax revenue – without the consent of school district residents.

The charter school story I was reading when I received the call from Nigeria had to deal with some gymnastics being performed by an organization which is splitting from its erstwhile parent, the University of Toledo.

The Ohio Council of Community Schools, one of the original charter school organizations in the state, was one of those creations that are unique to the charter school world. An outgrowth of the legislation sponsored by Toledo-area notable and former Lucas County Republican Chair, Sally Perz, it was originally identified as a “division” of the University of Toledo Board of Trustees, one of the first recognized charter sponsors in Ohio, along with the Lucas County Educational Service Center and the Ohio Department of Education. (Note: The Lucas County Educational Service Center has since rechristened itself as the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West.)

Charter watchdogs know the story well. After the establishment of “The Council,” as it has been called by those in charterdom and state government, Allison Perz, the legislator’s daughter, soon became executive director of the organization.

The Plain Dealer provides a succinct summary of that history:

The current Ohio Council of Community Schools was formed in 2002, with Perz’ daughter Allison as the head. She then hired her mother as a lobbyist for the council.

The council then sponsored more White Hat schools, even as Sally Perz became a lobbyist for that controversial for-profit charter school operator.

In addition, The Plain Dealer reported in 2006, “Schools operated by four other for-profit education companies that employed Sally Perz as lobbyist also hired her daughter’s agency as sponsor.

How convenient.

White Hat Management is, of course, located in Area Code 234, not to be confused with the 234 Nigeria Area Code. But the familial connections described in the Plain Dealer article have long cast a shadow on the Ohio Council, where state regulators had been puzzled at the outset with the University of Toledo’s role as the sponsor of record and OCCS itself as a separate entity with ambiguous lines of connection to the university parent.

The council and the university have been partners for 15 years in sponsoring – creating and overseeing charter schools – after the state decided to let more organizations beyond the Ohio Department of Education sponsor schools. While the university was the official legal sponsor, it created the council as a non-profit to do all the oversight work.

The relationship has been a controversial one, drawing accusations over the years of favoritism and nepotism.

The lede in the Plain Dealer’s story explains the charter school gymnastics that are involved by the move to create a new sponsor with no ties to the parent:

A prominent charter school sponsor will avoid potential penalties for the failing grades of its schools thanks to a special exemption in state law and by formally splitting from the University of Toledo.

In the minds of charter school critics, it’s a move that provides an “outrageous” free pass that lets poor management of charter schools continue. But it’s just a paperwork adjustment in the minds of supporters.

“I see through the back door grandfathering of this maneuver and it cannot be tolerated,” said State Rep. Teresa Fedor, a Toledo Democrat.

In a statement sent to Plunderbund, state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, a Democratic candidate for governor, said that he is also disturbed by the maneuvering demonstrated by OCCS to become a newly-minted sponsor and thus separate itself from the poor marks assigned to the university as the original sponsor of record:

This is another example of the need to better regulate Ohio’s for-profit charter school industry. Loopholes like this are weaknesses in Ohio law that require legislative fixes.

Education needs to be about the kids. You simply can’t focus on educating Ohio’s future when you’re worried about making money.

With the OCCS move to divorce itself from the University of Toledo, we have the classic case of old wine being placed in new bottles through a loophole in state law that a Mack truck could navigate through at 2 a.m. with its lights off. As George Washington Plunkitt, the fabled master of New York’s Tammany Hall, put it more than a century ago, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

Upon further reflection, I recommend that Plunkitt should be considered as the patron saint of the charter school industry. Plunkitt’s rough-hewn political wisdom is taught in many political science classes, and since charters are at the nexus of money and politics, his selection as a patron saint would be a natural choice for charterdom.

Or maybe Plunkitt’s classic playbook was consulted by the legislative leaders at the time the original charter school legislation was crafted two decades ago. The use of the terms community school and sponsor, when the rest of the country uses the descriptors charter school and authorizer, is a case in point.

But whether we’re dealing with Mack trucks, old wine, Nigerian princes that call when you’re reading about bizarre charter school maneuvers, or you might be worried about how area codes in Nigeria and Akron can be confused, you’re not alone.

Please join me and others who are suffering from charter school fatigue. The Germans say it best: Enough is too much.
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Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.

 

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