Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Commissioner Chism's Charter School

Two weeks ago, I posted about a suspicious charter school board of directors.  At the time, it was unclear how several Shelby County Commissioners came to be on the Board, with at least one of them (a school district employee, no less) disclaiming all knowledge of why his name appeared on the list.

Just to refresh your memory, this is the STEAM Academy Charter School which claims to be part of something (as yet unregistered with the state) called the George Washington Carver Consortium.  STEAM applied to open a new charter school in the fall of 2014, and the school board rejected the application.  The contact person associated with the charter school application is Thessalonia Brown.

I speculated that there must have been a mistake in filling out the application or that the entire application was a prank.  Though I considered it, I rejected the idea that any of the County Commissioners had anything to do with it - that the only way these guys would be on this list together was if they had been drugged.

I begged someone in the media to take on the task of unwinding what I was sure was a case of stolen identity, forged signatures, and perhaps a dark political conspiracy.

Lesson learned.  Turns out (with great thanks to the Commercial Appeal's Michael Kelley) that it was just a run of the mill conflict of interest crossed with a healthy dose of signing-people-up-for-something-they-don't-know-about.  Here's the article, with the relevant paragraphs here:

     "Burgess said after the meeting he had no idea how his name wound up on the document and had never agreed to serve on a charter school board. Bunker said he had requested that his name be removed from the list, and Chism said he was removing both Bunker and Burgess from the list of board members.
     Chism, who organized the board, rejected the notion that his service on it created a conflict of interest as a member of the school district’s funding body because his term on the commission will end before plans call for the charter school to open."

Now that there are some more facts, there are, of course, only more questions. 

Let's start with the fact that County Commissioner Sidney Chism put his colleagues' names on a list without their permission.  Maybe he thought they would be honored to serve with him on a charter school board.  Maybe he thought no one would see the application, and he could sort out the board at a later date.  Maybe he was banking on the prestige of the board he "assembled" to lend credence to the application.  None of these are good options.  At best, Commissioner Chism has received what we would hope would be an unnecessary lesson in how one might go about assembling a board for a non-profit - with consent of the individual directors as the first step.

Next, we have to wonder why Commissioner Chism was not listed as the contact person for the application.  At the very least, Commissioner Chism's relationship to this hypothetical charter school must be clarified.  Is Commissioner Chism merely the appointed chairman of the board who is now charged with appointing the other board members?  Or is Commissioner Chism trying to open a charter school?  Did Thessalonia Brown bring him into the mix, or did he bring her into the mix?  With charter schools, I'm always interested in the qualifications (academic and personal) of the people proposing to start a new school.  Maybe Commissioner Chism has been sitting in the back of school board meetings anxiously taking notes on school governance.  Maybe not.

And then there's the conflict of interest.  Commissioner Chism sits on the body that funds public schools in Shelby County.  The school board requests funding from the body on which Commissioner Chism now sits.  The process over the years, and this year, has been contentious.  Commissioner Chism claims that because his term would end before the school opens, there is simply no conflict of interest.

Commissioner Chism's elective term ends on August 31, 2014, according to the County Commission website.  The school year for most schools in Shelby County (public and private) will start prior to August 31, 2014.  In the summer of 2014, the County Commission will consider the budget for the 2014-15 school year, the first school year that his charter school would exist.

Not only is Commissioner Chism's application to open a charter school considered by a body that is actively seeking funding from his government entity right now, but Commissioner Chism would next summer sit on a body considering funding for a school district that would fund his charter school.  Even if we assume that Commissioner Chism's charter school would not open until after Labor Day, leaving some time between leaving his seat on the County Commission and the first day of school, and that Commissioner Chism is correct that the school would receive no public funding prior to his departure from his Commission seat, he would still be sitting on the body that funds the body that funds his charter school.

This is a much more direct conflict of interest that the old conflict of interest that currently has Commissioner Chism sidelined in the current budget votes.  The old conflict of interest, raised by County Commissioner Terry Roland, has to do with Commissioner Chism's ownership of a day care provider that is in partnership with the school district.  Behind the paywall, County Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy explained that the day care does not receive county money, and that the money for the wrap-around services goes directly to the medical or other service providers, and not through the facility.  The eminent Jackson Baker weighs in here.  But Commissioner Roland has rustled up some form of an investigation into this conflict of interest, and Commissioner Chism is playing it safe by not voting on the budget while the process plays itself out.

I'm inclined to agree that CAO Kennedy is right that Commissioner Chism has not been voting in favor of funding that directly benefits his business.  So it's not a direct conflict of interest.  The conflict is that his business has a relationship with the school district, even if not financial.  The school district seeks funding from the body on which Commissioner Chism sits.  Can both the School Board and Commissioner Chism function free from influence where there is this relationship?  Can either exert influence on the other due to this relationship?  Does it matter if that influence is intentional or not?

The legal eagles (and the ethics commission) will figure that out, but it seems likely that this is not exactly corruption, or even a punishable offense, and probably not even a Conflict of Interest in the strictest sense.  But let's not condescend merely to meet the minimum requirements of ethical behavior.  I continue to argue that our public officials just shouldn't get that close to the line, and that we should maintain high expectations for the people we elect to represent us.  Better to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander, no?  I'm not experiencing physical pain, but I rarely agree with Commissioner Roland.  And I want this county budget to pass.  The School Board has already done damage to the quality of the educational services that the consolidated district will be able to provide next year, and it is strictly due to financial constraints.  Further cuts would be devastating.  Jackson Baker explains that there are no spare votes, no wiggle room.  And we've watched the dysfunction play out this week as the County Commission has been unable to fund a schools budget that it has already approved.  As much as I'd love Commissioner Chism's vote, I agree with his decision to recuse.

It is unclear why he would further complicate his various relationships with the school district with a charter school application. 

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