SOUTH BRONX SCHOOL: Someone In Albany Thinks Thomas W Carroll Is A Putz

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Someone In Albany Thinks Thomas W Carroll Is A Putz

I ran across this blog, Albany Citizen One. I read just one post. But boy did she hit the nail on the head in regards to the charter school movement in Albany. So without further ado, sit back, grab a cold one and read on.

Brighter Choice: Good, Bad and Ugly

The building of another charter school on the end of a dead end street in the 12th ward has gotten quite a few folks riled. The riling seems to have worked. And while I’ve picked up the sword in defense of the citizen, many are confused with my criticisms. Many of my fellow citizens have questioned my criticisms of this project as being supportive of the teacher’s union and not in support of “freedom of choice.” This, seemingly, is in clear opposition to my standard criticisms.

Let me clarify for those who haven’t figured it out yet, ACO supports what is in the best interest of the citizens. I’m not against unions, I’m against the abusive “power” of a union. I’m not against charter schools, I’m against the citizens in the community having their taxes raised to insert an unwanted/unneeded charter school in a residential neighborhood. I’m against this eminent domain by the charter schools and I’m against bypassing proper procedure to insert said school before the citizens realize what’s happening.

Let me break this down for you…

Here’s the Good with Charter Schools:
Charters provide an alternative learning environment for those who may not be able to afford private school.
In New York, Charters provide a non-unionized work environment (for the most part)
Charters are not saddled with tenured teachers well beyond their prime
Here’s the Bad with Charter Schools:
Charters, though they don’t admit it, don't often accept students limited in learning capability, emotional well-being, physical development, language limitations.
Charters send their underperforming students back to public schools.
Now, here’s what’s wrong with Albany Charter Schools….errr…Brighter Choice.

Brighter Choice is a shining example of great capitalistic strategy…a strategy which has cost the citizens of Albany a whole lot of money while earning the BC elite a whole lot of money. Brighter Choice was begun by Thomas Carroll. Seems that Tom Carroll along with Brian Backstrom, Albany Prep's chairman, were president and vice-president of Change-NY, a conservative think tank that helped push Mario Cuomo out of office and brought us George Pataki. (Incidently, while they billed themselves as a taxpayer advocacy group they seem to have no problem going after government money when it is for their own projects. Like “Race to the Top.” )

Ya see, Carroll got a few of his guys together from the back chambers of the Capital building, Pataki’s boys…Brian Backstrom, Peter Murphy, John Carl…you know the folks. And they figured out how to make some bucks off the citizens and block criticism of the abuse by endearing themselves to the minority community with a brilliant public relations strategy.

They created a “choice” mantra and reached out their hands to the public schools which, and the ASD must admit this, could have been providing a better product. That “choice” opened up an educational competition which, hopefully, increased the quality of education in Albany. With their first success, Brighter Choice filled their boards (Brighter Choice Schools, Brighter Choice Foundation and all their Schools) with political strategists (lobbyists), public relation firms (lobbyists) Budget Department Insiders (Executive/Legislative…lobbyists), Investors (political donors), financial insiders (political donors), and they dotted those boards with “community insiders.” You know, the type that BC (Brighter Choice) might think could convert an urban distrust of “the man.” Victor Collier, Ken Wilcox, Kelly Kimbrough. (I’ve mapped out the BC Board Web here for ya.)

Genious…pure genious.

(Note: Even though BC has checked the box stating they don’t lobby on their 990, they do have a contract in place ($37500 per filing) and they have several lobbyists (including Bender) on payroll…and several, I’m sure, that aren’t recorded anywhere.)

Like anything else that is Albany, this plot enriched the construction companies, greased the palms of the politicians, abused the very system put in place to prevent overdevelopment and it got out of control…it lost the balance between its feigned concern for the community and its true mission, financial enrichment. Of course, those BC financial wizards would have had to anticipate the “breaking point” in this economic climate…combined with the growing frustrations of the citizens.

While I’ve showcased Juan Gonzales’ article illustrating how Brighter Choice is benefiting from the New Market Tax Credit and several other credit schemes. I’ve looked beyond the scheme for money grubbing financial institutes nearly doubling their money within seven years of keeping a struggling Charter alive.

Now, one major concern I’ve encountered when examining the infrastructure of Carroll’s brainchild, are the Boards. The Boards are ingeniously constructed to not only benefit BC, but to benefit each board member. (I've put all board members into a spreadsheet including their daytime figure out the conflicts of interest...oh, and shoot me an email and I'll point that out in the speadsheet!) Contracts have gone to board member's companies without competing bids and they even voted to have BC enter into contracts with their own companies.

As you’ve probably guessed, not only do the contract winning companies benefit in this board relationship, so does BC. Ya see, several of those no-bid insider contracts are to School Performance, Inc. This company is charged with reporting “unbiased” data regarding the Charter students academic performance. Slight conflict…me thinks. Here’s a view inside the Charters offered from NYSUT and integrated with ACO (yeah, I know there’s motivation but it’s all backed up):

Charter schools in Albany’s Brighter Choice network have awarded contracts to a non-profit testing and data company operated by Albany charter board members. Four contracts obtained so far through the Freedom of Information Law indicate all four contracts were approved without competitive bidding. Contracts between Albany charters and the company, School Performance Inc., show that the company oversees the reporting of test score data which charters then submit to authorizers for their renewals. Other board members at Brighter Choice charter schools have benefited from contracts to provide software, advertising and public relations services for charter schools in the Brighter Choice network.

School Performance (SPNY) is a non-profit charter consulting, data and testing company providing standardized test support and other services to Albany charters. The initial board of directors of included, Thomas Carroll, Chris Bender, Bill Phillips and Peter Murphy (all Charterbots). As of June 2008, directors of School Performance, Inc. included other board members at Albany charter schools, including Brian Backstrom, vice president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability and chair of the Albany Preparatory Charter School; John Carl, trustee of the Albany Preparatory Charter School; and SPNY’s president, Paul Thallner, trustee of the Albany Community Charter School.

Here’s another, at a meeting of the Henry Johnson Charter School on January 25, 2008, former SPNY founding director Peter Murphy moved to have the school enter into a $10,000 contract with SPNY. Board minutes from that meeting do not reflect any discussion of his past role in creating the company or any potential conflict of interest.

And another, on Sept. 26, 2007, the Albany Preparatory Charter School entered into a contract with SPNY based on a discussion led by board trustee John Carl and seconded by Brian Backstrom. There is no record of either Carl or Backstrom recusing themselves from the vote to avoid a conflict of interest. Both voted on the motion, even though School Performance’s IRS Forms for 2007-08 show both Backstrom and Carl served on SPNY’s board of directors that year.

As if this little bit of self-dealing weren’t enough of a concern to me, I had to look at BC’s 990 (IRS Information Form). (This data hasn’t been updated since 2008 online so I’m working with old data here). Seems that BC had, in 2008, 38 million in assets, and it felt that M. Christian Bender deserved over $192,000 in salary and, get this, over $18K for housing?

Go figure, is this nonprofit really worthy of a 501(C)(3) status? Perhaps the IRS exempt organizations department should take a look at this situation and that of School Performance Inc. seems they are doing pretty well on the citizen’s dime for nonprofits. (Oh yeah, Thallner makes over $125K…makes ya sick, huh?) Interesting also, looking at those who hold the notes on BC, the New Market Development Corp…where, I understand, Carroll is on the board, Broadway 915 (don’t look too closely…this is Omni) Oh shoot, I’ll just send this over to the IRS. Nice to have a strategic network in place!

Now, if there weren’t enough concerns with accurate academic reporting after we find out the “reporters” (School Performance) have ulterior motives, there remain more concerns. You remember me telling you how the Charters are, for the most part, grossly under-enrolled with SUNY making annual adjustments to better help them meet their goals. While the enrollment gaps are enough to call into question test-score comparisons between charter and regular public schools, charters and district schools also experience a “churn rate” that affects who gets taught and who gets tested.

Nearly 150 students have returned from Albany charter schools to the city school district during this current school year.The district began compiling data on students who returned in late November. The chart below, in which parents explain to the district why their students are returning from Albany charters, offers a glimpse at the turnover, or “churn.”

Of the 146 students who have transferred to Albany city schools from charter schools as of Febuary 1, 2010, the numbers include 48 from the New Covenant CS; 22 from Brighter Choice’s Achievement Academy CS and 16 from Brighter Choice’s Albany Preparatory CS. The city school district also reports 14 students each have left the Brighter Choice’s Green Tech and Brighter Choice’s KIPP Academy charter schools this year.

In 2008-09, 191 students transferred to district schools from Albany charter schools, about 9 percent of the city’s total charter enrollment. The largest number, 72, returned to city schools from the New Covenant Charter School that year, but 27 left Brighter Choice’s Achievement Academy; 24 returned from the Brighter Choice Girl’s and Boy’s charters; and 23 were discharged from the Albany Preparatory Charter School.

Albany and its charter schools illustrate the inherent unreliability of comparing student test results, given the lack of comparable student bodies and the “churn” or mobility rate among schools. For both the regular public schools and charters, how is it possible to determine whether the students being taught are the same ones being tested?

Exemplifying the problem of “churn” – and the unreliability of test score comparisons – is the KIPP Tech Valley Charter School, which is now up for renewal from the SUNY Charter School Institute. In 2009, KIPP Tech Valley Charter School graduated its first cohort of students to go through all four years of its program. The school reports that 100 percent of its eighth-graders scored level 3 or Level 4 on the 2009 state math test, and 92 percent met state standards on the ELA test.86 However, KIPP’s Class of 2009 also had a four-year graduation rate of 31 percent District records show only 27 of the 88 students who attended the charter school as fifth-graders in KIPP’s first year completed the charter program four years later. Fifty-five students left the school, and six remain enrolled in 2009-10 after being held back. In 2008-09 alone, 14 KIPP students returned – or were removed – to Albany city schools

Even more discouraging is the enrollment of the special education students….of course, I’m sure School Performance will find a “work around.” Despite a random lottery, the Brighter Choice Boy’s and Brighter Choice Girl’s charter schools in Albany enroll a combined 13 students with disabilities out of a total enrollment of 443, for a special education rate of 2.9 percent.67 Albany’s special education population is 14.6 percent.68 Brighter Choice Charter Schools were recently found not in compliance with their charter for inquiring about students’ special education needs on their application form. The State Education Department report instructed Brighter Choice, “As the child’s special education status is not relevant to admissions, please provide an updated lottery application.”

The New York State Charter School Association, the management and lobbying arm for many operators, went to court to block financial and operational audits by the Office of the State Comptroller. Brighter Choice appealed to the Court of Appeals two rulings forcing it to disclose the names and salaries of its teachers under the Freedom of Information Law, information that is a required part of the public record for regular public schools to protect against nepotism and fraud. The for-profit National Heritage Academies, with which the number two at BCF, Maureen Blum seems to be rather well acquainted, is seeking to block teacher efforts to unionize as public employees. NHA’s legal effort – in the face of 100 percent of teachers signing cards seeking union representation in March 2009 -- suggests charter management wants to avoid the natural checks-and-balances that occur when teachers have a voice through a union. Now see, this is a good place for a union.

You remember me mentioning Maureen Blum right above? She’s a staffer at Brighter Choice Foundation. Ever heard of her? I hadn’t either even though her apartment is directly across the street from me. She is, get this, the Brighter Choice Community Outreach Director. Now, I’ve been a Community Outreach Director…what might you think one of these might do? Right! (You musta gone to public school.) They reach out to the community. Well, this Albany based school has a Community Outreach Director who lives in Washington D.C. but stays in a BC owned apartment when she’s here….lobbying. Yup, that’s right, she’s a lobbyist…living in D.C.

While I’m outraged at the violation of the rights of those citizens down on Bradford Street being targeted for yet another Charter School on their serene dead end street, I’m even more outraged at outright unlawful activity which has become acceptable within this nonprofit system. This continued abuse is the reason this system has thrived…it is not because of academic achievement, it’s not because there aren’t enough slots for all of our students to have a “choice,” it’s because everyone is getting rich and living the high life on the backs of Albany citizens!


Charter Mafia Must Be Destroyed said...

Michael Moore should be investigating..

Joel Klein Can Bite Me said...

This has only been allowed to go on because we have spineless politicians who want their grubby hands on these wealthy guys' money. And the rich guys know it.

The one thing that money has ALWAYS been able to buy is SILENCE.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Carroll and Brian Backatrom have been struggling to remain relavent since C-H-A-N-G-E NY and The Empire Foundation For Policy Research were please (snap snap)...