Last Thursday the Board spent several hours discussing five issues that are at the heart of the relationship between the District and the CLC. Most or all of them will end up being addressed in negotiations over a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the CLC and the District. In this post I’ll share my perspective on what I heard at the meeting.
By way of background, there are two reasons why this discussion is taking place now. First, the existing MOU expired over a year ago. Since it defines much of the day-to-day interaction between the CLC and the District it behooves both parties to replace it, or decide that they don’t need one, rather than limp along.
Second, several bumps in the road have affected the CLC/District relationship during the past year. CLC significantly increased their site-based fundraising efforts (i.e., efforts aimed at raising money for just the CLC, as opposed to the San Carlos Educational Foundation), causing concern at the other schools and within the Foundation. In addition, District office staff had to deal with a number of issues arising out of decisions made or not made by CLC. Cutbacks in district office staffing made it harder to address those issues.
These recent events make a review, and possible adjustment, of the relationship between the two parties a timely and useful effort.
The five issues discussed Thursday night were:
- Financial Liability
- Personnel Management & Liability
- Collaboration, Coordination and Communication
When an organization has an independent existence, and an independent governing body, the normal expectation would be that it, and they, are responsible for the financial consequences of their decisions. If you hire a contractor to work on your house, and he gets in an auto accident on the way to the job, you expect him, and possibly his insurance company, to deal with it.
CLC, however, has no existence as a legal entity independent of the District. The Board delegated a fair amount of power and authority to the CLC and its Governance Council through the charter. The Board does retain oversight authority, although in practice I can’t recall a single instance where it was ever applied, other than the annual exercise of approving the CLC’s budget (which is almost always a rather pro forma event, when it even takes place).
Consequently, the CLC Governance Council, and to some extent CLC’s staff, can make decisions which put the District on the hook without the District or the Board having a say in the specific decision. This is scarier-sounding in theory than it is in practice. I know of only a handful of situations since 2001 where I was worried about potential liability for the District arising out of a CLC decision.
With that for background, my takeaway from Thursday’s discussion is that my colleagues are uncomfortable with the degree of imbalance between their ability to oversee CLC and the potential liabilities for the District that CLC decisions could create. There’s a desire to clarify what is meant by Board oversight, specify where and how it should apply, etc. I also believe there’s a desire to make CLC’s decision-making process more visible to the trustees.
That’s all contingent, however, on whether or not CLC becomes a true legal entity. I believe the trustees desire to balance liability exposure and oversight would be substantially less if, say, the CLC were to incorporate and obtain its own insurance. That’s actually the most common model for charters in California.
Personnel Management & Liability
Personnel management and liability is closely entwined with financial liability , but the feeling was that there are non-financial aspects to the former which merited separate discussion.
My own view, which I expressed at Thursday’s meeting, is that this issue is essentially one of “protecting the District brand”, in terms of the workplace and learning environments. Any school chartered by the Board needs to live up to certain expectations as regards the workplace environment, student safety, special ed practices, etc. Based on what I heard, I think the trustees believe such standards should apply regardless of how independent a charter school is. In other words, even if the Board has relatively little need to oversee a charter (e.g., because the financial liability issues are adequately addressed through an independent legal structure and insurance), trustees seem to expect certain standards in the “personnel” area be maintained (I’ve put personnel in quotes because the concern is not just with employees, but also how students are treated in the classroom).
I heard less clarity on what those standards should be, and how broad they are. Several trustees expressed concerns about imposing “personnel” standards which require, say, a union (CLC has never had one, so far as I know) or mandated class sizes or a particular curriculum. I heard a general sense of not wanting to interfere with CLC’s ability to innovate on its own, provided what I’m calling the District “brand” is protected.
In the end, I think what came out of this discussion is a desire to delineate a set of basic principles on the workplace and classroom environments, complaint procedures, complaint escalation procedures, etc.
In terms of time spent, this had to be the biggest issue of the night. Most (maybe all) of the trustees said they wanted CLC to remain within the district-wide fundraising program spearheaded by the Foundation. That program incorporates some site-based fundraising for its own purposes, but focuses most of each school’s efforts on raising money for all the students attending District schools.
Many of the trustees also expressed support for the Foundation deciding to exclude CLC from the 2010/11 district-wide fundraising program if an accommodation cannot be reached between CLC and the Foundation on the terms and conditions of CLC’s site-based fundraising. There was appreciation for the Foundation not being able to delay launching this year’s effort, and not wanting to repeat the 2009/10 experience, when their volunteers spent too much time dealing with fallout from CLC’s expanded site-based fundraising.
There was also some discussion about whether the District could or should require CLC to follow district fundraising policy. While that policy does not currently mandate, or even endorse, a focus on district-wide fundraising, it could in the future. Staff argued that the ability of the District to require CLC to follow any policy, including one on fundraising, depends on whether or not the CLC is an independent charter. Currently it is a law-unto-itself hybrid, which is something comments made by trustees lead me to believe they want to see clarified by CLC moving towards either more independence or more dependence.
Collaboration, Coordination and Communication
This issue generated almost as much noise prior to the meeting as the fundraising issue. It was not, unfortunately, particularly well addressed Thursday evening, in my opinion. It deals with the necessity of establishing and maintaining a smooth working relationship between CLC and the District, regardless of the legal or organizational model used by CLC. When you operate within the same community, and share space on a single campus with a District-run school, it’s important that the roles and responsibilities of each party towards the other be well-defined and understood. That hasn’t always been the case between CLC and the District, and it showed during the last year.
I think I heard a desire on the part of most, maybe all, of the trustees that the existing roles and responsibilities defined in the MOU need to be expanded and clarified so as to minimize the potential for problems. Personally, I hope a regular review process — aimed at answering the questions “how well are we working together, and where could we do a better job?” — will be incorporated in the MOU. I think an escalation procedure of some sort should also be defined in the MOU, so that problems can be addressed when they’re small.
Most of the discussion of this issue revolved around balancing the competing interests of CLC and the District to accommodate students. Until recently, that wasn’t an issue, because there was more space than was needed. However, growth at the District and CLC has made it one. For example, the District would like to be able to assure every out-of-district charter student that attends one of its four elementary schools the chance to attend middle school in the District, too. That’s not currently the expectation.
There seemed to be support for looking at this issue in a different way: have both entities share the costs of enabling all their students to stay in their school(s) for the entire nine years. That would be subject to maintaining reasonable limits on overall site utilization, since it isn’t in anyone’s interest to have really large student populations on any campus.