‘Public hearings’ without the public

Indiana law requires charter school authorizers to conduct a public hearing before they give permission for a new school to open. Did the Indiana Charter School Board follow the law when it authorized the Excel Center that will open this fall in Bloomington?

James Betley, executive director of the Charter School Board, said there were two “community meetings” in 2018 in Bloomington, attended by representatives of business and civic groups, including Judy DeMuth, the superintendent of the Monroe County Community School Corp.

He said those meetings were “open to the public,” but I can’t find any evidence that the public was told about them. There was nothing about them in the local newspaper, either before or after the fact. If the “public” wasn’t informed, in what sense were they public hearings?

Excel Centers are adult charter high schools operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, a program of Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana. The schools are designed for adults who dropped out of school and want to go back and earn enough credits for a high school diploma. At least 15 Excel Centers have opened since 2010 in Indianapolis, Lafayette, Kokomo, Richmond and other cities.

Cook Group, the Bloomington-based medical products company, has rolled out the welcome mat, bringing along other businesses and organizations. Betsy Delgado, vice president of mission and education initiatives for Goodwill, said about 200 people attended the first community meeting in early 2018.

Betley said the only requirements for a public hearing on a proposed charter school are that it take place in the county where the school will be located and that the local school board be allowed to speak.

“We were aware of Excel’s ongoing outreach and community partnership efforts in Bloomington, including the community meetings,” Betley said in an email. “… I determined that the public hearing requirement had been met and there was no need to conduct an additional hearing.”

He said no one from the Monroe County Community School Corp. commented to the board on the proposed school, either at the community meetings or at other times.

But MCCSC school board member Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer wrote in a recent blog post that she was surprised to learn in December 2018 that a local Excel Center would open this year. She said district officials are concerned the school will pull resources away from the MCCSC adult education program.

“Unlike other charter schools that have tried (and sometimes succeeded) to be established here in town, there was no public notice for a public hearing,” she wrote. “There was no information given to the general public in which we could weigh in and say whether or not we thought this would be a good idea here in an area which already has much of this provided to our adult learners.”

The situation is complicated by the unusual process the Indiana Charter School Board used to approve the charter for the Excel Center in Bloomington. It was one of four charters that the board approved at its June 2017 meeting – the year before the local community meetings.

But only one of the four charters, for Muncie, was listed in the agenda or minutes. The others, for Bloomington, Columbus and Marion, were included in the Excel Center charter application; and they were mentioned during the meeting but not discussed. Then the board voted in December 2018 to “activate” the charter for Bloomington, allowing the school to open.

Excel Centers have grown rapidly and appear to be responding to a real demand for adults to earn a high school diploma. They are popular with policymakers. They have expanded beyond Indiana and generated positive news stories, including in the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor.

Because they serve a nontraditional clientele, their effectiveness is hard to evaluate. (Their low reported graduation rates appear to be misleading – more on that in a future post). It’s clear that the business community in Monroe County is excited that an Excel Center is coming. And there certainly are residents who could use a better chance to finish high school.

But real public hearings help ensure that government agencies are transparent and accountable. Meetings of insiders and invited guests don’t serve the same purpose. The Charter School Board and the Excel Center and its supporters may not have violated the law, but they violated the public trust.

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