Cross-examining the charters

Mary T. Wood arrives for a lunch meeting hauling two tote bags of files with hundreds of pages of semi-organized records about the state's charter schools.

She orders a chicken salad sandwich and is pleased with its fresh bread, juicy tomato and crisp lettuce. But there's just not quite enough chicken salad for her taste. Indeed, it's more a spoonful than a healthy scoop.

She examines a nearby sandwich to compare contents. She then displays the sandwich to the staff and complains. She gets more chicken salad, happy the restaurant has now provided what they promised.

That's the basic attitude she applies to Michigan's charter schools.

"The name I use on my card is being an advocate for accountability of charter schools," she says. "I've never claimed I'm against them or for them. They could have a place. But I haven't been driven to check out the good ones. If you were to ask me, 'What are the good ones?' It would be the ones that aren't on my radar right now."

For nearly a decade, the college-educated, stay-at-home, 54-year-old Warren mother of five has made it her life's work to be a one-woman force of accountability for the state's 230 charter schools, or "public school academies" as they're officially called.

And she's forcing others to take note.

"The state board itself has taken a greater interest, really an interest, in looking at the details of charter school authorization and proliferation," says Elizabeth Bauer, a member of the state board of education, who says she admires Wood. "She has definitely clarified those kinds of arrangements and brought them into a focus so people actually pay attention."

Michigan's first 41 charter schools opened in 1995, and this fall there will be 232. About 6 percent of Michigan students attend a public school academy, which ranks Michigan fourth among states for the rate of charter school enrollment, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

Last year, enrollment topped 100,000, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies announced, with this year's enrollment projected to grow.

Michigan legislators this fall are expected to debate allowing a greater number of charters in Detroit as they refine laws related to schools.

Charter schools in Michigan are public schools, set up separately from traditional districts to offer choice to parents for their children's education. Charters are issued by state-designated authorizers. Charter schools have their own boards that can — and most often do — contract with privately owned management companies that handle a range of administrative functions. Those management fees run into the millions of dollars, and because the management companies are private businesses, they're not subject to the same "sunshine laws" that make their records public and their meetings open. Just two of the schools out of the state's 230 have unionized teachers, according to the Michigan Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Education Association.

Charter school students take the same standardized tests as students in traditional public schools. The schools are held to the same academic standards.

Test results are mixed, depending on varying interpretations of test scores. On the fall 2006 English and math MEAP for grades third through eighth, charter school students performed below the overall state average but better than the public school districts in which they were located.

According to state data, on the spring ACT this year, the average composite score for students at the 53 charter high schools throughout the state that reported them was 15.5, lower than the state average of 18.8 and a little higher than Detroit Public Schools' average of 15.3. Just three of the 53 charter high schools outperformed Detroit's top two high schools.

But academic performance aside, Wood's biggest concern about charter schools, in a nutshell, is that there is not enough oversight of the public money spent on these schools; there's a general lack of accountability throughout the system.

"Unfortunately, this issue is politically based, and people are positioned in key places to permit improprieties to happen on a regular basis because I am certain that they believe nobody would know the difference," she says.

For acting — some say overreacting — on these beliefs, she's been threatened by a lawyer who demanded that she "cease and desist" from defaming his client. Her information has been criticized as inaccurate and incomplete.

"She doesn't always get everything right but she has followed this like nobody else," says Ken Siver, deputy superintendent in Southfield Public Schools. "There are a whole bunch of people who don't like seeing her coming, whether they're on the state board of education or a local school board."

But Wood can't help but stand by her passion that started, she says, when she herself emotionally bought into the promise of charter schools without intellectually thinking about their sometimes uncertain outcomes.

Unsatisfied with class size, discipline and academics in her daughter's traditional public school, in 1999 Wood chose to move the then-fifth-grader to a new charter school. Four weeks into the academic year, the school did not have occupancy approval for the building, so her daughter took several field trips and went to classes in tents set up on a playfield.

Wood started asking questions to figure out why this was happening. Who should have been overseeing the school? Where was the state? Public universities authorize the schools? What does that mean?

Both getting answers and having her questions unanswered gave her some sort of motivation that continues nearly a decade later. She has attended nearly every monthly state board of education meeting since February 2000 using the full five minutes allotted to each guest for public comment to present her research about what she considers financial mismanagement or improper deals.

She knows where employees of different agencies have worked in the past and connects people involved with schools, management companies, boards, the state and authorizers.

She has filed countless Freedom of Information requests with the Michigan Department of Education, authorizers and individual schools. She has attended meetings of the boards of charter schools. She has met with residents who live near new schools and has sometimes been the only person who informed them of new construction and traffic coming to their neighborhoods.

"I learned a lot more about this from Mary," says Pat Cullen, a 52-year-old automotive parts tester who lives across the street from a new charter school in Southfield where construction surprised him and some of his neighbors. "She knew all the legal aspects and I don't. I'd like to talk to her again."

Wood has criticized authorizers, state officials, charter school operators and boards. She's been threatened with legal action. She's begged traditional public school districts to take a better look at charters.

"When new charter schools crop up, she sounds the alarm," says Marie Thornton, a Detroit school board member. "When you see Mary, you see Mary by herself. You don't really see her with an armful of people."

To some she's a hero: a lone, self-motivated watchdog of Michigan's complicated charter school system that's allowing too many private individuals and for-profit companies to reap too many public dollars without enough public disclosure and accountability.

To others she's a misguided, self-styled martyr, who has erroneously characterized charter schools' operations as questionable at best and criminal at worst and who has often spread misinformation about them.

"There are people, the nice ones say she's a thorn in their side. Others say she's a pain in the ass, but the truth is, she's on to something," Southfield's Siver says.

Either way, Wood has dedicated herself to researching the charter system. While charter schools account for a little more than 5 percent of the state's $13.5 billion K-12 education budget, according to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, that's still roughly $740 million.

Wood wants to know how that money is spent and has some ideas about how it should be.

"We don't agree with the vast majority of the arguments that she makes. That doesn't mean we shouldn't have the discussion," says Gary Naeyaert, spokesman for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. But "I'm not sure there is a level of scrutiny that would satisfy Miss Wood's penchant for conspiracy theories that is rivaled only by Oliver Stone."

Steady work

Students in Michigan charter schools are more likely to be poor but less likely to have disabilities than students in traditional public school districts. They're also more likely to be elementary school age than in high school.

Traditional district administrators say that means charter schools have relatively cheaper students to educate because the Michigan school funding formula provides money for each district on a per-pupil basis, regardless of the age of the student.

Southeast Michigan public school districts have felt some of the biggest effects of charter schools. The 10 Michigan districts with the highest numbers of students in charter schools are located here. In Inkster, enrollment in four charter schools — about 2,000 — is nearly half of the entire public school district. That's the highest rate in the state.

Within the Detroit Public Schools boundaries, nearly 30,000 students enrolled in 47 charter schools during the 2006-2007 year, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

Opponents of charter schools have warned of a flood of new academies in Detroit with changes in Michigan school law. The Legislature in July passed the School Aid Act, which authorizes funding for schools. But a provision in the measure reclassified a first-class district as one with 65,000 students instead of the 100,000 mark in the previous law. First-class district status per the act allows Detroit Public Schools — the only such district in the state — some special provisions, including preventing other districts from opening some competing programs and allowing increased security budgets, for example.

But legislators have not yet adapted the Michigan Revised School Code — the second part of school law — to match. The code prevents community colleges from chartering schools in a first-class district. But the code defines a first-class district as 100,000 and legislators have not moved to change it to match the School Aid Act. Technically, many believe the law as it stands could allow more charters in Detroit, as enrollment is expected to drop to about 98,000 this fall.

The State Superintendent of Education Mike Flanagan has said he endorses more charter schools for the city.

But Patrick Shannon, charter schools office director at Bay Mills Community College, located in Brimley in the Upper Peninsula, says there are no plans for more Detroit schools from his end.

"I know people are using us as a foil, [saying] if you don't pass legislation, then Bay Mills is going to come in and charter a number of schools," he says. "But we don't want to get so big we can't function."

Bay Mills currently authorizes 37 schools statewide, including 11 in suburbs bordering Detroit, and was a relative latecomer to authorization. The original 1994 Michigan charter school law allowed K-12 and intermediate school districts, state public universities and community colleges to authorize the charters for public school academies, as charter schools are formally known. A 1998 measure limited the number of such charters by universities to 150 statewide. Community colleges didn't have such numerical restrictions, but could authorize charter schools only within the college's boundaries and not in the Detroit Public Schools district, which excluded Wayne County Community College, for example, from authorizing public school academies in the city.

Bay Mills in 2000 authorized charters for schools in Bay City and Pontiac, a move that was challenged. Then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm ruled in September 2001 that Bay Mills' geographical boundaries encompassed all of Michigan, allowing the schools to operate throughout the state.

Shannon says, with charter schools, Bay Mills fulfills its mission as a minority college of increasing access to education and providing alternatives to standard systems. "It's more of a social justice approach than a free market choice," he says.

But the college's schools have not been without controversy; just ask Wood about what's happened with some Bay Mills-chartered schools in Southfield. She'll tell you it's both typical of charter schools and an example of extreme flaws in the system.

She first points to Laurus Academy, a K-8 school with about 600 students located on Lahser Road. It's one of 36 Michigan schools managed by the National Heritage Academies, a company started by J.C. Huizenga, a successful Grand Rapids businessman. NHA manages 57 schools in six states.

Huizenga also is the principal owner of Charter Development Co., a Grand Rapids-based business he formed in 1996 that owns properties on which charter schools are located. State records show the same office addresses for National Heritage Academies and Charter Development Co.

According to Southfield records, Laurus is located on property Charter Development purchased for about $1.7 million in 2004.

NHA schools are on Charter Development's property in other sites around Michigan, Shannon says. Other states have the same situation. In Toledo, NHA operates two schools, and according to the Lucas County Auditor, Charter Development Co. owns the properties where both are housed. In Dayton, Charter Development owns the buildings where three NHA-managed schools are located, property records there show.

When NHA-managed schools are paying rent to Charter Development Co., Huizenga ultimately is getting public school money from the two sides: management fees in general and rent.

Tara Powers, a spokeswoman for NHA, couldn't say just how much. "NHA charges fair market value for the rent and all services, and the budget is voted on and approved by the school board that contracts with NHA for its services," she says.

Shannon says Bay Mills and other authorizers know about the situation and don't find it unusual. "It's not been viewed badly. It's open, disclosed and fair market value," he says. "We've not seen a problem with that."

Wood disagrees and thinks the authorizers should better scrutinize public money spent that way. "It's a setup," she says. "That's how National Heritage makes a profit, off the building. The authorizers are very supportive of making sure the management companies get their share of the pie."

Wood has tried to get the public school district and the neighbors to take note of another school's situation in Southfield. Bradford Academy opened in 2003 and has grown to a K-10 enterprise. It's managed by the Romine Group, a Utica-based company that manages three other Michigan schools.

Bradford's budget alone for 2008-2009 shows more than $1 million will be paid to the Romine Group, and Bradford will collect about $11.6 million in state aid along with at least another $900,000 in state and federal funds.

The school was first housed at 26555 Franklin Rd., the Christian Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, according to city of Southfield records. That address is the new location of the Nsoroma Institute, a charter school authorized by Oakland University, which moved there a year ago from Oak Park.

Charter schools — public schools — paying for space in a church is legal, says Maureen Shafer with the Michigan Department of Education.

Shannon agrees and says several schools in the state rent from religious organizations but make sure the space is nonreligious. "Sometimes you have to put a gunny sack over the Virgin Mary," he says.

Wood says she doesn't necessarily have a problem with a charter school having a contract with a church, but she worries that the separation between the public school and the religious entity isn't always clear.

At the Franklin Road site, the church's sign at the front of the building contains its name and address. "It's not until you go into the driveway in the back parking lot that you see there's a school back there," Wood says.

But her biggest objections about Bradford, she says, are that no one has cared about its financial and management situation and how its new site came to be.

According to Oakland County records, Bradford Academy purchased its building and property — located on Garner Road west of Telegraph near Nine Mile — in September 2006 for $12.3 million from Constructing Solutions, a Grand Rapids company formed by attorney Jeffrey Ammon.

Constructing Solutions purchased the property in March 2006 for $1.1 million from Castle II Construction, a Michigan company incorporated by Jerome Morgan, of Detroit, according to state records. An elementary-middle school was built while Constructing Solutions owned the site.

Telephone and e-mail messages to Ammon and the Romine Group were not immediately returned.

Record show that Castle II Construction purchased the property from Jerome Morgan Trust for $1 in 2006. Jerome Morgan Trust purchased the property from Jerome Morgan in 2003 for $1. He had purchased it for $270,000 six months earlier.

Constructing Solutions also purchased the four residential sites where the new Bradford High School building was built this year. Bradford is leasing the site and planning to buy the property, Shannon says.

Wood has talked to nearby homeowners and Sivers, but doesn't feel like she should do any more legwork until she sees others involved. She'd like to look at police reports, code compliance and other regulations for the site to see if everything is in order. But she's uncharacteristically battle-weary.

"I kind of feel like I have run the gamut, like I didn't know what to do and where to go anymore," Wood says.

Much of her relative apathy, she admits, is because of a letter she received this spring from an attorney representing Helicon Associates, a Flat Rock-based management company she has complained about for years at state board of education meetings in her comments and in reports and other correspondence to the board members.

"The letter was very intimidating to shut me up. I stand behind anything I have said, my research is thorough," she says. "The intention is to keep this issue undercover as there has been a big cover-up."

Helicon used to manage the Crescent Academy, another Southfield charter school authorized by Bay Mills and located on 12 Mile Road. Helicon is run by Michael Witucki who also has financial interest in SAAS Development LLC. SAAS purchased Crescent's building in 2004 for $1.8 million, selling it directly to the school in 2006 for $5 million.

SAAS paid for an addition that included a gymnasium and made other improvements to the building, Williamson says, which resulted in just a $300,000 profit in the sale.

When Bay Mills realized the Crescent board had not provided information about the purchase and financing to its authorizer before the deal, Shannon says he had board members removed and has been working for months to "unwind" the contract.

The new board replaced Helicon with another management company.

Wood admits she's spooked by the attorney's letter, fearing costs of litigation if she's sued. She didn't attend the last state board meeting, wondering about the legal ramifications for any comments she'd make. "I don't delve into stuff as deeply as I used to. I don't explore things to the depth I could have in the past," she says.

Despite her reaction to the Helicon situation and not being quite as hungry for knowledge about charter schools at the moment, Wood knows she's not done with her work.

Her files live on her dining room table. She and her husband haven't eaten there for months.

"I will keep talking about this and talking about this to whoever will listen until the situation is rectified to remedy the situation for the children. I haven't shut up in nine years," she says. "I'm in a holding pattern right now. We'll see what happens."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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