Published in The Akron Beacon Journal on July 8, 2014 (Link)
By Karen Bell and John Veauthier
The names of school board members at Ohio’s publicly funded Horizon and Noble charter schools are unlike those on traditional public school boards.
Take, for example, the board members at the Denison Horizon Science Academy elementary school in Cleveland: Mehmet Malcok, Hamiyet Unal, Sevda Gousseinova, Erhan Ararat and Basak Kacar Khamush.
Up the chain of command, the names are similar.
The superintendent of the North Ohio Regional Office is Murat Efe. He has identified himself as an employee of Concept Schools, a management firm in suburban Chicago.
The media contact at headquarters is vice president Salim Ucan, according to the school’s website. The head of the company is Sedat Duman.
Many of the board members and employees are new to the United States, as the company is an aggressive importer of Turkish labor. Some board members — unlike traditional public school board members who cannot be elected without being registered voters — aren’t U.S. citizens, let alone registered voters.
Ohio’s 17 Horizon and two Noble schools are considered “public” charters. Funding for operations is transferred from the school district where students would normally attend to each charter school’s board, which pays Concept for management services.
Last school year, Ohio Horizon and Noble Academies enrolled 6,719 students and received $49,775,180 in public dollars. Schools are in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Euclid, Toledo and Youngstown.
The News Outlet, a student journalism lab headquartered at Youngstown State University that includes the University of Akron and Cuyahoga Community College, has been collaborating with the Beacon Journal in an exploration of Ohio school choice.
As part of the project, News Outlet interns reached out to 20 board members at Concept schools in Northeast Ohio.
The goal was to learn more about the board members and how the boards operate.
Of the 20 board members — many of whom are doctors or college educators — 14 did not respond to emails or phone calls, or declined to be interviewed. Four provided partial responses and only two answered all questions.
The list of questions included citizenship, how they came to be on the board, if they have children attending these charter schools and their experiences with the management company.
One board member was unaware that her school, Horizon Science Academy Youngstown, employed a management company.
“Who is the management company?” two-year board member Fatma Sahin Yildiz asked, repeating a question posed by a News Outlet reporter, who followed with: “For Horizon, do you know who your management company is?”
“For Horizon, I don’t know,” answered Yildiz, who works in a hospital and has been in the U.S. for six years on a green card, which provides permanent residency for a noncitizen.
Three people returned with the same email response: Abdurrahman Arslanyilmaz of Youngstown, president of Horizon Youngstown; Takhar Kasumov of Mayfield Heights, president of Horizon Cleveland High and Cleveland Middle, and member of Denison Middle and Noble Academy Cleveland; and Yilmaz Sozer of Akron, president of Horizon Denison Middle and Noble Academy Cleveland.
Arslanyilmaz is an assistant professor of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) College at Youngstown State University. Kasumov is an assistant professor at Lerner College of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Sozer is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Akron.
“Horizon Science Academies and Concept Schools were initiated by a few Turkish-American educators who wanted to contribute, in their own capacity and expertise, to the solution of the problem that U.S. was falling behind in STEM education,” the statement reads. “Though an admittedly small group, Turkish Americans are like many other immigrant groups — they come from different backgrounds, but share a common experience and a common goal of contributing to their communities.”
Kasumov expounded on the Turkish connection in a phone interview.
“Basically, the people in the charter management company are from Turkey,” he said. “They have hired most teachers coming from Turkey or Central Asia because science, math dedication, I would say, is much higher than here in average American schools. And there is a need for them here to be.”
The same board members who sent prepared statements said they found some questions to be too personal, including those about their experiences on the board.
“I don’t think I am going to be able to answer those questions on personal issues. I can answer how long I’ve been on the board. My experience, still, that’s a personal question as well,” said Arslanyilmaz.
Sozer also declined.
“Actually, I am not allowed to talk because … . The questions that you listed related to my preferences, my background or so, those are really personal questions,” Sozer explained. “I checked with the lawyer — I understand you are doing your job, but I don’t want to do an interview right now. I will send you an email.”
Questions about who asked them to be on the boards and what they would be expected to do were referred to the school Code of Regulations, which “explains how board members are recruited and elected, and what governance training they receive.”
Asked about their relationship with Concept Schools and whether the company played a role in selecting board members, they referred to the management contract with Concept. The IRS considers this an important question in determining whether a charter school qualifies as a nonprofit organization.
Asked to discuss what they believed to be the goal of the schools, they provided the mission statement.
Questions about whether they had children, if so, how many and what type of school they attended — for example, do any send their children to Horizon schools — were deemed to be “too personal.”
Mum on citizenship
Asked whether he has considered U.S. citizenship, Sozer — who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years — replied: “Most of the board members are either U.S. citizen or permanent resident who are in the process of getting U.S. citizenship.”
Kasumov, who has been in the U.S. for 17 years, deleted the question.
Arslanyilmaz said he has been in the U.S. for 14 years but declined to answer the citizenship question. “I do not feel comfortable answering this personal question,” he wrote.
Basak Kacar Khamush, a board member for Horizon Cleveland Elementary and Denison Elementary, sent an email saying: “Thank you for your interest in our schools. Please direct all inquiries about our school and board to Dr. Mehmet Malcok, board president. Please know that we take our role as a public board member seriously and we take public records requests and media inquiries in the friendliest and most professional manner. Please respect our policies and contact the person I have referred you to, and thank you.”
Ahmet Bahadir Ergin of Horizon Science Academy Lorain was unwilling to be interviewed over the phone or answer emailed questions until he spoke with “the school manager.” He declined to provide the name and phone number of that school manager when asked.
“Well, I don’t think I would like to give numbers of people … especially on the phone. I am uncomfortable. I really don’t know your identity. I don’t know who you are. I have a tendency not to believe. I look at hard solid evidence,” said Ergin.
Ergin is an internal medicine resident at Fairview Hospital in Cleveland.
Kasumov, however, said board members have the option to speak with the media.
“Certainly. Everyone is free to say what they have to say. There are no rules that say not to answer any questions. No. There is nothing. Contact them directly,” he said.
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).