A Child’s suicide and the Secret Life of DC Charter Schools

The conversation with Tomeika Bowden, the spokesperson for the DC Public Charter School Board, has turned intense. I have been trying to understand whether the organization reviewed the management agreement between the SEED Public Charter School and the SEED Foundation.

 

Critics allege the foundation may be engaged in self-dealing. “There is no question the left hand is paying the right hand a whole lot of money,” said one source who has read the agreement.

 

The SEED School, located at 4300 C St. SE, has a management contract with the SEED Foundation to operate the city’s only public boarding school, according to documents I obtained. That would give the impression the school is in charge. Think again.

 

The school must get the foundation’s approval before it can make changes to existing government contracts and before it can take on new debt or alter existing debt. The foundation must approve who is elected chair of the school’s board of trustees, and the foundation must approve the appointment or dismissal of the head of school.

In 2016 and 2017, the school paid the foundation $400,000 per year for management and other services, according to a statement on the charter board’s website.

 

It appears one-quarter of the foundation’s board sits on the school’s board of trustees or is employed in some way at the school. Rajiv Vinnakota, one of the school’s founders, made more than $300,000 in 2016; he was listed as the highest-paid employee on a 2016 financial report posted on the charter board’s website. Vinnakota sits on both the school’s board and the foundation’s board.

 

The two organizations appear to have flaunted their interlocking leadership in plain sight. “SEED Foundation has both an economic interest in the school and controls membership of the school’s Board of Trustees,” according to a note accompanying the school’s financial report. “The school is a component of the foundation’s consolidated financial statement.”

 

The charter board seemed not to have challenged this organizational structure. Spokesperson Bowden did not respond fully to my questions, arguing that I should speak with the folks at SEED.

 

Some education advocates have speculated that because of SEED’s political connections to key District leaders and congressional representatives, it has not received the same scrutiny directed at smaller “mom and pop” charter schools. “It’s an unfair system,” said one advocate who, worried about possible negative consequences of discussing SEED and the charter board, spoke on the condition of anonymity.

 

James Moeller, a spokesperson for the foundation, did not provide an answer to my questions about the management agreement. “As this matter is part of ongoing litigation, we are not able to comment at this time,” he said in an email. Moeller is a member of the foundation’s board; he is also a former managing director for the Global Public Affairs practice at Ogilvy Public Relations.

 

My interest in SEED increased after details about the suicide of Stormiyah Denson-Jackson became public in a lawsuit filed earlier this year. Anyone who cares about the welfare of children in this city would be disturbed by the allegations in the complaint. William J. Lightfoot and William P. Lightfoot of Koonz, McKenney, Johnson, DePalois & Lightfoot LLP filed the suit on behalf of the child’s mother, Patricia Denson, as representative of the Estate of Stormiyah Denson-Jackson.

Among other things alleged in the lawsuit, the school psychologist, who spoke with Stormiyah after she said she wanted to kill herself, was not licensed at the time by the DC Department of Health as required by law. While acknowledging Stormiyah was having thoughts of suicide, the psychologist took no further action to secure additional help for the 12-year-old girl. The school didn’t even notify her mother, according to the lawsuit. On Jan. 23, 2018, Stormiyah hanged herself in her dorm room at the Ward 7 boarding school.

 

The tension during my conversation with Bowden peaked after my third request to speak with PCSB executive director Scott Pearson. I wanted to know how he felt about Stormiyah’s suicide and whether the charter board had demanded SEED make changes to its operation. Bowden repeatedly declined to make him available, asserting that Pearson’s feelings were not relevant.

 

I was incredulous. Of course Pearson’s feelings matter. If he were enraged or felt guilty, that could have catapulted him into action, encouraging the board to respond forcefully. Perhaps he would have placed the school on probation while working to ensure that another child’s life would not end as Stormiyah’s had. If he lacked an emotional response, then District residents and elected officials may want to urge him to find alternative employment.

 

At-large DC Council member David Grosso, chairman of the Committee on Education, met with Pearson on Feb. 9, 2018, not long after Stormiyah’s suicide. However, Grosso’s spokesperson clarified that it was “their regular monthly meeting.” He said the council member “inquired into the tragedy that occurred at SEED” and “further raised concerns the community had voiced regarding bullying and school climate.” Grosso also asked “what steps PCSB was taking going forward to help students and the school community heal,” according to the spokesperson.

 

The board has not publicly provided an answer to that key question. Moreover, while sources said the charter board conducted an internal investigation, a report on that probe has not been made public.

 

Fortunately, Ward 6 DC Council member Charles Allen and others want to end the secret life of charter schools and PCSB’s operations. Earlier this month, Allen and four colleagues introduced the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019, which would require charter schools to hold open board meetings and enable the public to file Freedom of Information Act requests. “To me, this is very straightforward: public schools should all be subject to FOIA and open meetings” requirements, Allen said in a news release. “Whether it’s a public school or a public charter school, those are your tax dollars, and students, parents, teachers, and lawmakers all deserve transparency.”

 

Through a spokesperson, Pearson called the legislation “misguided. It fails to take into account the extraordinary transparency measures already taken by the Public Charter School Board.” He added that the bill would not help “close the achievement gap, reduce the number of students living in poverty, or reduce truancy.”

 

“We support a smart, reasonable approach that provides the transparency parents need, but does not divert school efforts, attention, and funds away from educating students,” added Pearson.

 

He can’t possibly think it’s the job of 13 elected politicians on the DC Council to close the achievement gap. That’s the role of school educators, administrators and parents. Allen, his colleagues and DC taxpayers have been spending billions of dollars toward that goal.

 

In my view, Allen’s legislation is a good start but doesn’t go far enough and misdirects accountability. The ultimate responsibility for what happens in the charter sector should be on the Public Charter School Board, the authorizing body. It should ensure that each school follows all DC government laws, and it should be the one to handle FOIA matters by obtaining the requested information from the applicable charter school. This would offer the side benefit of making the board and its staff more knowledgeable about what is really going on in the schools. The board has hidden for too long under the cloak of independence as Bowden did, arguing that every school is a fiefdom unto itself and, therefore, cannot be reined in or controlled.

 

That has become an increasingly dangerous proposition as demonstrated by Stormiyah’s death and the apparent fiscal shenanigans between the SEED School and SEED Foundation. It’s time for District officials to stop mollycoddling the charter sector, and start demanding from it the same adherence to rules and regulations that is required of DCPS. After all, DC taxpayers are forking over hundreds of millions of dollars each year for charter schools, and they have a right to expect accountability.

 

In her recently submitted 2020 budget, Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed providing $900 million in direct funding to charter schools; that amount doesn’t include loans from the DC government to renovate their facilities or cover other expenses through a program administered by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. SEED School receives more than $15 million from city taxpayers. “During the years ended June 30, 2017 and 2016, the school was heavily dependent on per pupil allocations from the District of Columbia,” according to notes attached to the financial statement. “Reduction of funding from [DC] would have a significant impact on the operations of the school.”

 

SEED isn’t unique in that regard. That fact should be enough for elected officials to put their collective foot down, demanding in the 2020 budget full transparency and fidelity by charter schools to all local laws. In my view, anything short of that is fiscal malfeasance.

 

This article was first published on TheDCLine.org

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