By Greg Childress, NC Policy Watch
Application spurs unusual split between State Board and charter school oversight panel
A State Board of Education member is defending her vote to deny Heritage Collegiate Leadership Academy (HCLA) of Wake County a charter to open in 2024 despite the Charter School Advisory Board’s (CSAB) glowing recommendation.
Board member Amy White, who co-chairs the state board’s Education Innovation and Charter Schools Committee, told colleagues that she opposes granting HCLA a charter because she doesn’t believe presumed executive director Kashi Bazemore is up to the task based on her past performance at a school Bazemore directed in Bertie County with the same name.
White cited that school’s history of low-performance, failure to comply with fiscal requirements, failure to have enough certified teachers on campus, failure to have the required number of members on the governing board, and federal violations in the exceptional children program for her decision to vote against granting the charter.
“Why is that relevant? It’s relevant because Dr. Bazemore-Hall was the executive director of HCLA-Bertie during the four years that it operated, and as such, she was responsible for the school’s many failures to comply with state and federal legal requirements, charter requirement and the directives of the Office of Charter Schools, DPI School Business Office and the violation of the rights of students at the school to receive a sound basic education.” White said.
Bazemore-Hall was Bazemore’s married name at the time she directed the Bertie County school.
HCLA’s charter application was unanimously rejected by the state board last month. Under state law, the state board must send the application back to the charter board before it makes a final decision.
At last month’s CSAB meeting, Bazemore questioned whether White had a personal motive for voting against HCLA.
Bazemore told CSAB that White was a member of the Wake County Board of Education when Bazemore worked for the school district as an assistant principal and had a “legal situation” that resulted in Bazemore filing a sexual harassment claim against her boss, Bazemore shared.
“She [White] would have been a part of that, and I just want to place that on the record with the hope that this is not a conflict of interest, but certainly with the hope that we will look into it,” Bazemore said.
Bazemore also noted that White has been supportive of Wake Preparatory Academy, a K-12 charter school located just across the Wake County line in Franklin County. Bazemore’s school would compete for students against Wake Prep, she said. Since Franklin County is under a court-ordered desegregation plan, Wake Prep must try to enroll a student population that reflects county demographics.
White didn’t mention Bazemore’s charges on Wednesday, but did say that she wanted to set the record straight about why she is opposed to granting HCLA a charter.
“During her time as executive director of HCLA-Bertie [from] fall of 2014 to the summer of 2018, Dr. Bazemore-Hall showed that she was unable to properly run a successful school to the point where the school’s charter had to be revoked for malfeasance,” White said. “I personally would feel irresponsible if I voted to grant Dr. Hall the opportunity to have another [school] given her opportunity to have success at a school for four years and her failure to do so.”
White’s colleagues offered their support for her position, which signals that last month’s unanimous vote against granting HCLA a charter is unlikely to change today when the board makes its final vote on the matter.
“We’ve had many discussions through the years and we have not always agreed on every issue, but I have always respected your viewpoints,” said Alan Duncan, the state board’s vice chairman. “They have always been thoroughly researched, thoroughly thoughtful and with a real emphasis on fairness.”
State Superintendent Catherine Truitt thanked White for sharing her concerns about Bazemore. Truitt, a nonvoting member of the state board, then asked Office of Charter Schools director Ashley Baquero how the HCLA application arrived before the state board with unanimous support from the charter board.
It’s unusual for the state board and the charter board to take such starkly differing stances about a charter school application. Generally, the state board follows CSAB’s recommendations.
Baquero explained that external evaluators initially review charter school applications.
“They are evaluating solely on what’s on that application, so they may or may not know any past history; they probably have very little understanding of what has happened in the agency regarding past schools,” Baquero said. “They are solely looking at that application and what’s in it and the data that’s presented.”
After the external evaluations and staff evaluations, charter applications are forwarded to the charter board, which is the only body to meet face-to-face with applicants, Baquero said.
“Our office just tries to be an objective, technical assistance kind of, in terms of providing the data to CSAB, providing the support for applicants to make sure that they understand how the process works,” Baquero said.
State board member Olivia Oxendine remembered the controversy with the school in Bertie County.
“It will be past performance that will be the critical deciding point for Olivia, not necessarily the strength of what was in the application” Oxendine said.
The Bertie County version of the school opened in 2014. Control was assumed in 2018 by Raleigh businessman Don McQueen after state education officials found serious academic, governance and operational issues under Bazemore’s leadership. McQueen renamed the school Three Rivers Academy.
The transfer was arranged to prevent the school from closing. But the proposed cure for what ailed the school, proved to be worse than the illness. The state board ordered the school to close last year after a lengthy investigation by the Department of Public Instruction found many of the same serious financial and governance issues.
McQueen’s flagship school in Raleigh, Torchlight Academy, was also ordered closed by the state board because of many of the same financial and governance shortcomings found at Three Rivers. After the schools closed, state education leaders vowed to be more vigilant in their oversight of the state’s more than 200 charter schools.
Bazemore’s new application calls for a K-8 school that would eventually grow to 600 students in five years. Bazemore has said the school would primarily serve Black and Latinx students in northeastern and eastern Wake County, whom she contends are not adequately served by the Wake County Public School System.