HARTFORD, CT – Armed with a new report, the Connecticut Education Association said organizations managing many of the state’s charter schools are lining their own pockets instead of teaching children and it’s calling on legislators to hold them accountable.
“We’re giving millions to millionaires,” CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg said.
But those who work with and for charter schools in Connecticut said the teachers union was just “grasping at straws” and that the report was flawed.
“The research paper relied on by the CEA contains numerous inaccuracies and is a blatant political attack,” Peter Cymrot, vice president of legal and compliance for Achievement First, said.
Achievement First operates 32 charter schools in Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.
“The arguments in the release are highly misleading and disingenuous,’’ Cymrot added.
The report, Corporate-Style Charter Schools in Connecticut, said Connecticut has increased funding for charter schools to $11,000 per pupil — an 18 percent increase over the past five years — at the same time, combined per-pupil spending at six of the state’s corporate-style charter schools operating with charter management organizations has decreased by $1,435, or 10 percent.
The report further states while these organizations have cut back on per-pupil spending, they have hiked up their per-pupil management fees by $576 per pupil, or 53 percent.
The report states that the top two executives of Achievement First have received more than 60 percent pay increases over the past five years, with their salaries now topping $260,000. It adds the chief executive of Domus, which operates schools in Stamford and New Haven, received more than 20 percent pay hike over that same time period, with his salary now at more than $325,000.
According to a 2012 report by the New Haven Register, New Haven’s school superintendent was paid $226,921 per year for a district with almost 20,000 students. Salaries for 148 superintendents range from $100,000 to $285,000 for full-time superintendents and from $36,000 to $95,000 for part-time superintendents. The average salary for a superintendent in Connecticut is about $164,000 per year.
Charter school representative were quick to point out that their executives don’t receive the same pension package as public school superintendents.
About 9,000 students attend charter schools in Connecticut.
“These CMOs are shaking down the State of Connecticut and using money earmarked for our students to line their own pockets — profiting off the backs of our children and state taxpayers,” CEA President Sheila Cohen said. “Our schools and teachers are always working hard to do what’s best for students, but these CMOs are doing anything but.”
Cymrot vigorously defended Achievement First.
“Achievement First is a nonprofit, and our funds are used in support of our students and schools,” Cymrot said. “The CMO fee – which has been unchanged since 2011 – is used to offer our schools a variety of critical services including teacher recruiting, professional development, facilities support, curricular guidance, payroll, accounts payable, data analysis, human resources, fundraising, special education deliver support and other day-to-day management services.”
Achievement First had an ally in rejecting the report’s findings.
The Northeast Charter Schools Network took a stand against accusations made by the teachers union.
“The CEA is really grasping at straws with these baseless accusations,” Northeast Charter Schools Network Connecticut State Director Jeremiah Grace said. “They know that nothing they said worked to slow down parent demand or public support for charter schools last year so they’re trying something new but as always, the facts speak for themselves.”
He said the charter management organizations are nonprofit so that the schools can concentrate on the work of teaching kids.
“They do many things: the school’s back office work, help secure the school house building, provide a range of services such as recruiting and hiring of teachers and staff, professional development and training, curriculum, and data analysis just to name a few. In essence, they perform like a district’s central office,” Grace said.
The Connecticut Education Association is asking lawmakers to increase accountability by requiring the schools to comply with Freedom of Information laws, a prohibition on management fees and a moratorium on charter school expansion.
The report, prepared by Rodriguez Data Solutions LLC, said two charter management organizations in particular, Achievement First and Domus, have had large management fee increases over the past five years.
The report was especially critical of Achievement First, which it said pocketed $5.3 million in state funds allocated for students in fiscal year 2016.
“It is unconscionable that Achievement First’s management fees have increased 139 percent or $3 million over a five year-period,” Waxenberg said. “Achievement First is getting rich off funds that should be used for our children, and taking valuable tax dollars away from schools that need them.”
Achievement First’s Cymrot responded: “In 2016, the AF CMO raised more money for its Connecticut schools than it received in management fees. That philanthropy is necessary to make up the gap in funding our students receive compared to their district ers and we’ve chosen to be in some of the lowest income districts that are among the worst funded in the state.”
Waxenberg noted while there was much attention given when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently announced the state was cutting $20 million in education funding to municipalities in an effort to help combat the state’s projected budget deficit, more than $100 million annually is spent on charter schools in Connecticut.
“School choice is empowering for Connecticut students, and charter schools contribute to the diverse array of high quality public school choices for families in our state,” said Abbe Smith, state Department of Education spokeswoman.
“There needs to be accountability in choice and Connecticut has taken steps in recent years to strengthen oversight of charter school, including implementing new policies to improve governance and transparency,” Smith added.
The accountability law for charter schools was put in place in 2015 following an investigation into rampant nepotism at the now defunct charter management organization that oversaw Jumoke Academy in Hartford.
“It is also important to note that by law, public charter schools and charter management organizations are not-for-profit,” Smith said. “That means, CMOs must adhere to the same governance and financial standards as any other 501(c)(3) entity in Connecticut. Furthermore, recent legislation passed in 2015 that further strengthened the governance and reporting requirements of CMO’s that extend beyond the requirements of a 501(c)(3).”
The NAACP national board last October called for a moratorium on charter school expansion and for the strengthening of oversight.
The board said it wanted charter schools to be subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools, that public funds not be given to charter schools at the expense of the public school system, that charter schools stop expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate, and that charter schools stop effecting “de facto segregation” of high-performing children from children whose “aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”