News: CJ Exclusives

Moore County Charter Lives to Fight Another Day

Judge wants state ed board to answer questions about charter denial

A Moore County charter school received a stay of execution Tuesday from Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. after challenging the State Board of Education’s recent decision not to renew the school’s charter. The ruling sets up an August showdown in Wake County Superior Court between the Academy of Moore County and the state board over whether the board acted in an “arbitrary or capricious manner” in refusing to grant the school a new charter.

The state board voted in March not to renew the academy’s charter, citing poor student test scores. The decision had come as a shock to the school’s board, staff, and supporters, who believed that they adequately had addressed the numerous shortcomings previously noted by the state’s Office of Charter Schools and were making solid progress on a “corrective action plan” crafted in consultation with the OCS.

Rather than accept the state board’s decision and close the school on June 30 (the last day of the current charter), the school retained counsel and sued, claiming that the state board ignored data showing marked improvement in student achievement.

Morrison’s ruling was the opening shot in the academy’s efforts to stay open. At issue was whether the academy would suffer irreparable harm if the current charter is allowed to expire, and whether the academy had a reasonable chance of proving at trial that the state board had acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner.

Morrison ruled in the school’s favor on both points, saying of the board’s non-renewal vote, “It’s a death penalty — you’re taking their charter.”

Throughout the hearing, state board attorney Laura Crumpler stressed that, as the constitutionally authorized authority over public education, the board’s decision should be respected. Citing the school’s history of declining test scores (a trend that reversed in the 2008-2009 school year), she rejected the school’s charges of arbitrary or capricious actions.

“The state board had an immense body of evidence [of poor performance] with regard to this school and considered it very carefully over a period of months,” Crumpler said.

Academy attorney Kieran Shanahan countered that the board had not considered the most recent data showing improving test scores in its decision, an assertion that Crumpler never denied directly. His attempts to get board witnesses to testify, providing the specific information board members had in hand before making their decision, largely were unsuccessful. At the conclusion of the hearing, it remained unclear whether the board ever had been presented with the most recent student test data.

At one point, a clearly frustrated Morrison interrupted the proceedings to chastise Crumpler for avoiding that and other issues he wanted to hear about. “Put me up here somebody from the state board who can say what happened at that meeting,” he said. Crumpler replied that the board had no plans to call any board members as witnesses.

Academy Principal Allyson Schoen testified that the school had worked closely with the OCS in preparation for the school’s renewal. She said that the school and the OCS had agreed jointly on a series of corrective actions by the school to improve academic performance and enhance the school’s chances of receiving a new charter.

All of the benchmarks in the plan had been met. she said. Later testimony by Jean Kruft, the OCS consultant for charter renewal, corroborated Schoen’s assertions.

But Jack Moyer, director of the Office of Charter Schools, testified that completing a corrective action plan may not be enough to ensure that a charter will be renewed. “It’s not a guarantee,” he said. Downplaying the significance of the action plan in the renewal process, he testified that his office assists charter schools with such plans but does not “approve” them. “We’re not required to do anything with [a plan],” he said.

He stressed that he never told officials at the Academy of Moore County that completing the plan would result in a vote for renewal.

Pressed by Shanahan in a sometimes testy exchange, Moyer claimed that, to his knowledge, the state board voted not to renew the school’s charter solely because of academic concerns, citing “a trend for low performance and no growth.” Moyer said he told school officials repeatedly that their test scores must improve. But he also conceded that he did not have access to the school’s most recent, improved test data prior to his office making its recommendation on the school’s charter renewal to the board.

The judge’s decision to issue a stay has the practical effect of allowing the school to operate for at least one more academic year. Unless the state board reverses its March decision and renews the academy’s charter, the next step will be a trial on the merits of the academy’s argument that the board acted in an arbitrary or capricious manner. Since a trial could not occur before August, it would be too late to close the school without causing unacceptable disruption to students and their families.

But the academy is not out of the woods yet, and the stakes for the school are enormous. Losing the case would send 170 students back into regular district schools, and 15 teachers to the unemployment line. It also would cause the school to default on the loan for its brand new $2.2 million dollar facility.

Student test scores will be crucial in determining the school’s fate. While results are not yet final, preliminary figures for the current academic year show that 64 percent of the academy’s students are now on grade level, up from 47 percent the year before.

Schoen is the first to acknowledge the magnitude of the task ahead. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” she said as she was leaving the courtroom.

Jim Stegall is a contributor to Caroilna Journal.