"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Imagine Schools: Corporate Hucksters in Charter Disguise

More and more states/boards are catching onto the power grabs orchestrated by Imagine Schools, one of the largest for-profit CMOs.

Questions persist over contract for McKinney charter school

11:05 PM CDT on Wednesday, September 23, 2009

By MATTHEW HAAG / The Dallas Morning News

The board of a charter school planned for McKinney has been in turmoil over questions about the school's financial arrangement with a controversial school management company.

Four of the school's original five trustees quit in August, saying in their resignation letter that they were concerned about the school's proposed contract with Virginia-based Imagine Schools Inc.

They wanted Imagine to give the board more control and lower what they said were excessive fees that Imagine planned to charge the school. The school, Imagine International Academy of North Texas, is expected to open next school year.

In raising the questions, "I felt like I was just doing my job," said former trustee Julia Shahid, an education professor at Austin College. "We were led to believe that we and the parents would have a lot of voice in how the school was run. In the end, we saw that Imagine really wanted to make the calls."

Cobby Caputo, an Austin attorney representing Imagine, said the company's contract with the school was lawful and fair.

"My take and legal opinion is that the current contract complies with state law," he said. "Imagine has a contract formed they are happy with and board members were unhappy [with]."

Imagine Schools was awarded two school charters in November by the state Board of Education. The agency did so even though state law allows only nonprofit organizations to open state-funded charter schools.

The Texas Education Agency gave the North Texas school and a second proposed Imagine-managed school near Austin a list of concerns they had to satisfy before the schools could open.

Shahid and former board president Don Newsom said they merely passed along to Imagine the questions posed by the TEA, which called parts of the proposed Imagine contract "unacceptable" and requested that Imagine change provisions it said undermined local control of the school board.

TEA attorneys are currently reviewing the company's responses to those concerns and its contract with the school. The school's new board members approved the contract this month.

"It's part of your responsibly to raise questions and to ensure the best education program will be provided to those students," said Newsom, a former superintendent of Celina ISD. "If you aren't doing that, if you don't raise those questions, then you are not doing your job and not being fair to those parents."

Newsom said he also opposed Imagine's demand to be in charge of hiring teachers and the school's principal. He said he asked Imagine to lower the management fee it planned to charge the school to run its daily operations.

"It was apparent in how they worded [the contract] that Imagine wanted as much control of the local school as allowed," said Newsom, whose former board position has been filled by a Fort Wayne, Ind., businessman. "They want the board to be an advisory board."

Imagine has emerged as one of the largest for-profit charter school management companies, operating several dozen schools in 12 states. But along the way there have been persistent questions from board members and state education agencies about how Imagine operates.

Similar concerns from parents and trustees at Imagine's proposed school in Georgetown, north of Austin, led the company and the parents to cut ties in recent months. Imagine wanted the ability to run the school forever without the board's ability to cancel the contract, said Juanita Stephens, a former board member.

"Basically, Imagine was wanting total control," she said. "We really did have lots and lots of questions and concerns."

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