Some Ohio charter schools tight-lipped when asked about basic details

Student reporters with The News Outlet contacted nearly 300 community schools in Ohio in an effort to obtain basic public information. Only one in four schools complied with the requests. Andrew Bush/TheNewsOutlet.org

Published in the Akron Beacon Journal, The Vindicator, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Columbus Dispatch on March 30, 2014

Featured in Investigative Reporters & Editors Extra Extra Blog on March 31, 2014 (Link)

By John C. Veauthier and Karen S. Bell
TheNewsOutlet.org 

Student reporters with The News Outlet contacted nearly 300 community schools in Ohio in an effort to obtain basic public information. Only one in four schools complied with the requests. Andrew Bush/TheNewsOutlet.org

Student reporters with The News Outlet contacted nearly 300 charter schools in Ohio in an effort to obtain basic public information. Only one in four schools complied with the requests. Andrew Bush/TheNewsOutlet.org

Jim Sinclair agreed to talk with a reporter on the telephone, but he made it clear he was not going to reveal any information about his school, Lorain Preparatory Academy of Excellence.

And, the self-described “leader” of the publicly funded charter school wanted some proof that the young voice on the phone was indeed a reporter.

“The first thing you need to do before I can even handle this discussion is to send me a fax with the letterhead stating who you are before I give out any information to anybody,” Sinclair said.

The fax was sent, but there was no response.

That was not out of the ordinary in calls to nearly 300 of the publicly funded Ohio charter schools. The calls were made as part of a school-choice project by the Akron Beacon Journal and The News Outlet, a consortium of journalism programs at Youngstown State University, The University of Akron and Cuyahoga Community College.

In a phone-call blitz that began in early January, students in the journalism lab called 294 of Ohio’s 393 charter schools seeking basic information: Who runs the building, who is that person’s supervisor, who is the management company in charge, how do we contact the school board, and when does the board meet?

infographicPublic accountability was difficult. Of the 294 called, the results were:

• 114 – nearly half – did not return messages seeking information.

• 8 refused to answer.

• 7 said they would call back but did not.

• 73 provided some of the information.

• 80, or about 1 in 4, provided the information requested.

By law, Ohio charter schools “must follow health and safety, ethics, public records and privacy laws; and comply with open meetings laws,” states a 2014 position statement by the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Citizens are not required to provide reasons for the requests.

Although the schools are required to follow state Sunshine Laws on open meetings and must supply public records, Dan Tierney, a spokesman with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, offered a nuance: They don’t have to supply that information verbally. They are only required to make documents available.

“A piece of information isn’t a record, but if you request a document they are required to respond,” said Tierney.

Andrew Boy at Columbus Collegiate Academy was among school officials willing to provide information, in any way asked. He was the founder and executive director at the campus, and now serves as the chief executive officer of the United Schools Network, a non-profit management company.

Not only did Boy provide answers to all the questions, he also offered to be a source for any stories about charter schools.

“If there’s anything we can do to help or if there are any questions you have, we’re happy to talk about it and dispel any myths – or confirm anything that you need to. Keep us in mind,” Boy said.

Reporters challenged

The cooperation at the Collegiate Academy was an exception.

During a call to Imagine Akron Academy, office manager Jeanette Twitty wanted to know, “What do you do with this information?”

She put the reporter on hold, and upon returning, said school superintendent Wendy Hubbard, “Would not like to give out any information because that’s something she hasn’t heard of.”

When the reporter asked if he could send a fax with the list of questions, Twitty responded: “OK, you can fax it over. If she’s interested, she’ll give you a call back or fax it back. If she’s not interested, you won’t hear anything from her.”

Hubbard didn’t respond. During a follow-up call, Twitty told the reporter, “Like I said before, we are not interested in participating. Please don’t call back again.”

A woman who answered the phone at Emerson Academy in Dayton simply said, “No, I won’t answer any questions.”

Then, she hung up.

“I don’t trust you with that information,” said the man who answered the phone at the Believe to Achieve school in Canton. He had been asked to give the names of the board members and their contact information. Prior to that, he responded, “No,” to each question including, “What is your name?”

The reporter who called East Preparatory Academy in Cleveland was put on hold and then directed to the school’s website for the information. When the reporter explained she had checked the website and couldn’t find the information there, she was told, “Like I said, you can find that on our website.” And the call was disconnected.

Government oversight?

Gov. John Kasich, speaking at the February meeting of the Ohio Press Association, responded to a Beacon Journal editor’s question about inability to obtain basic information from charter schools.

“We’ll work with you any way we can. I’m not going to hide from you,” said Kasich. “In terms of this specific information, where you can’t get anything about these charters, we have to dig into that. If you’re really not finding out where these dollars are going and how these schools are performing, you ought to have access to that in my judgment.”

However, the legislature, in 2005, removed the Ohio Department of Education from direct oversight of charters, and allowed creation of “sponsors,” which oversee charter operations. When reporters contacted the ODE’s community school consultants to see if they could provide answers, ODE deferred to the sponsors.

“Sorry you’ve been getting the runaround,” said consultant Vicki Grosh, who offered to look into distributing the questions to the sponsors.

However three hours later, John Charlton, associate director of communications for ODE, emailed The News Outlet: “The department has decided that we will not forward those questions to the sponsor. However many of questions you asked can be answered with data that is available on our website.”

Finding the information required the assistance of an ODE employee, who directed the reporter to a site containing charter school contracts, the majority of which did not include board information. Those that did were for the initial charter year, some dating to 2008. The names of management companies are not included.

Charlton at ODE said the department doesn’t maintain school board records for traditional public schools, either, so charters are treated the same.

Calls into the ether

Often, school officials said they didn’t know if they were allowed to release information about the board.

John Sowinsky, the principal at East End Community Heritage School in Cincinnati, suggested that a reporter contact Elaine Brandt, the wife of superintendent Joseph Brandt, to get information on board members and board meetings.

“Why would Youngstown be interested in that?” Brandt asked the reporter.

After being told The News Outlet was gathering basic information for a reporting project, the call was disconnected.

When the reporter called again, there was no answer.

Most times, reporters were asked to leave messages, which were not returned, but on occasion they couldn’t even leave a message.

At Townsend North Community in Castalia, near Sandusky, the caller was transferred by a secretary to an administrator’s extension and got this message: “The person you are trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time. Please try again later.”

At Richard Allen Schools, a reporter was transferred from the operator to the administrator’s office where a secretary said the superintendent, “Mrs. (Michelle) Thomas,” was at a different school and transferred the reporter to that school. The secretary there didn’t have answers to the questions and didn’t know where Thomas could be found. She transferred the reporter back to the administrator’s office, where he was told that “Mrs. Thomas” was in “conference” and to leave a voice message – which wasn’t returned.

White Hat resists

Reporters, at times, were referred to school management companies.

Summit Academy Management in Akron sent an email with all the board member information and meeting times. Constellation schools also provided board member information.

Information was also requested from White Hat, Imagine Schools and Concept Schools management companies.

Edward Hayes, a lawyer for Imagine Schools, sent an email Feb. 6 saying, “We are in the process of gathering the information that you have requested so that we may forward it to you.” The information was provided March 25.

Concept Schools never returned messages.

Each of the non-profit schools run by White Hat Management referred calls to Shannon Allen, a media representative at the for-profit company’s headquarters in Akron. Several messages were left for Allen, without a response.

Web sites inconsistent

White Hat’s schools’ web sites were inconsistent regarding school board information.

The websites for A+ Children’s Academy in Columbus and Emerson Academy in Dayton lists board member information, their email addresses and meeting dates. The site also lists the principal, teachers and staff, and includes their bios.

Others, such as the site for The Academy of Educational Excellence in Toledo, offers a MapQuest locating feature, a way to contact the school, and little else. Others, such as Accelerated Achievement Academy of East Cincinnati, didn’t have findable websites.

There are 17 Imagine Schools in the state, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

A recent visit to the Imagine corporate Web site and a click on “Find an Imagine School” and only one school was listed: Imagine at Sullivant in Columbus. However, a search-engine query of “Imagine Schools Ohio” turned up all 17. The individual school sites offered information on parent satisfaction, achievement reports and the number of students eligible for free or reduced lunches, but nothing on school boards.

A call to the corporate office for Ohio Imagine schools brought the response: “We don’t have that kind of information here.”

Contributing to this report were News Outlet reporters Dominic Ferreri, Brittany Landsberger, Ashley Morris, Jessica Mowchan, Jacob Myers, Niki Pizzuto, Alexis Baryak, Sara Rodino and Brittany Wenner.

More stories and information on charter schools

Some Ohio charter schools tight-lipped when asked about basic details

AUDIO: Confusion ensues when discussing community versus charter schools

VIDEO: Getting information from charter schools difficult

FEATURE: Table showing responses from Ohio Community schools when asked for basic information

Board members at White Hat charter schools say they have little control over public funds

IRS criteria determines non-profit status for charter schools

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, The University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).