In this CHARTER EDtalk, Janet Johnson, CMO at Charter School Capital, sits down with Darlene Chambers, Sr. Vice President for Programs and Services, National Charter Schools Institute and Charter School Capital President and CEO, Stuart Ellis, to discuss the importance of charter school board governance to the success of charter schools. If you missed Episode 1, find it here. Below you’ll find the video and the transcript from this episode.
Board Governance – Episode 2 transcript:
Janet Johnson (JJ): Good morning everyone and welcome to CHARTER EDtalk. We are here with our fabulous guest, Darlene Chambers, who is the Senior Vice President for the National Institute for Charter Schools, did I get that right?
Darlene Chambers (DC): Yes, you did. It’s a mouthful. But good morning. [all laugh]
JJ: … and Stewart Ellis, who is the CEO of Charter School Capital. Welcome.
Stuart Ellis (SE): It’s wonderful to be here, Janet.
JJ: Thank you. And in our CHARTER EDtalk, what we’re doing is speaking with in industry luminaries to get their perspectives on things that are facing charter school leaders. And, for this session, we are going to be talking about board governance. So, Stuart, if you’d like to kind of talk through some questions that you’ve prepared for Darlene, we’re going to talk through how boards should behave in support of their charter schools.
SE: Sounds great. Thanks.
DC: What a pleasure to be with your whole team. I want to thank you for what you do nationally to provide both facilities and finance for the charter sector. There are many that think charter schools are a risk. Perhaps they are sometimes, but you believe in them and you make sure they have the resources. So, thank you for what you do and it’s a pleasure to be with your whole team.
SE: Thank you. It’s a privilege for all of us to be working with you. As you tour the country and think about—really as an authorizer, as an educator, as a leader now in the movement nationwide—and you’ve probably looked at more schools than most people have had an opportunity to be associated with in the industry—I wonder if you could share a little bit about the recent Fordham report and analysis and thoughts that came from that (your own) about what makes, or what drives the success of one charter school versus another—and issues around board management, board governance, and leadership.
DC: Thank you. I want to give the context of what I can contribute to this talk. I think it’s optimum that we’re starting with board governance. If I had to pick an area of greatest confusion, it is who the charter is with and who the various players are. And charter school boards are the base. They are very important. They hold the charter.
As I go around the country, the institute is in 28 different states and we have 45 states that have charter school law and there’s one common denominator that can be the success or potentially the failure of a charter school and that is the base foundation—the charter school board. I am thrilled that one of my favorite entities, Fordham, is a great think tank in both Washington and they do have an office in Ohio, so I got to know them when I worked in Ohio.
It’s the first report of its kind that tries to quantify board governance. What part of board governance makes a difference in the success of the school? What helps make a high performing school, what type of board, what type of attributes? This particular study, Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital, just got released, and it particularly focuses on the DC Charter School Board and as it looks at it, it can take its facts and findings and take it across the country because what they found – the highlights for me –was when you have a successful charter school, you have a board that is trained, that takes a look at facts and data, meets, and is engaged and involved. And then we look at each other and go, well, we already knew that, but there’s actually data that goes with it. They contracted with the Bellwether Group to do a survey and they scientifically looked at the data to develop the report. So, thank you to Fordham. I hope there are those that read it. We already felt and knew what they said about board training is important. Engagement is incredibly number one, and that you have to get together, and you have to know what boards need to do to connect to the school and help us with its performance.
SE: When you think about coming out of the analysis by Fordham – but also your own experience – when you think about the things that boards can be or should be trained on, what are the kind of high- level subjects that a board member needs to know to be excellent at guiding the school to success?
DC: I’m not sure, Stuart, that people know that you’ve been a board member yourself. Of not one school, but I think two schools at least. And I’ve been a founding board member myself and I think one of your board assignments was as a founding board member? You’ve got to smile when you’re a founding board member because you have all the enthusiasm. Mine was a feeder school for performing arts and it just goes straight to my heart – because I believe in performing arts for children – and you start out and you’re so excited! You’re going to just slay the world and your school is going to be the very best and then you at each other and you go, what did I sign up for? And doesn’t the money just sort of fall out of the sky and we get together?
SE: Yes, it does. [all laugh]
DC: No, it doesn’t. Very quickly you learn that charter school boards are different and the same of a district traditional school board. First of all, charter school board members aren’t elected. I’m not sure why, but we volunteered … we volunteered for it. But you have some of the same duties: a duty of loyalty, duty of understanding public trust, and then you start to realize the seriousness of this is taxpayer money, that the parents are trusting that you will govern the school, you will take care of their most precious commodity (that any one of us has—their kids) and that you have an enterprise that takes understanding finance. Again, a lot of people don’t even understand that it is not academics that closes schools, whether it’s traditional district or charter, it is finance. The number one reason.
So, go figure. As a board member, I was in charge of the finance committee and had to work with the auditor once a year. And that’s one of the toughest committees and task force. So as a board member, and talking about charter school boards, I think it’s really important for us to know the difference and should be very wary of people that say “those charter schools, they’re private, they’re not public.” And I don’t understand that because we are public. We’re a 501c3 as a board of a charter school. We report to public agencies, we use public money where every bit is public, and it takes good governance to watch over all that.
SE: As you think about the tools available to board members and to some of these schools as a public entity, what are some of the things, from an analytical standpoint around the school, either the specifics of their finances or the strengths and weaknesses of any particular school – that you think board members should be focused on or, or helping the leadership of this school drive?
DC: I think there’s a linear order of how boards should approach their work. I think number one is you come on a board, you need to know your bylaws, you need to understand what governs you, you need to understand your roles and responsibilities. And, I think what’s key in those roles and responsibilities, Stewart, is where you can get good resources, good data, and good assistance. So, the data can come in from strategic planning, setting key performance indicators, and making sure you have good metrics coming in on that data.
Do we ever get to do, do-overs? If I could do a do-over on my time in board governance, I would want to have a do-over in being more focused, not trying to just do a flurry of activity at every board meeting but having good data reports—whether it is my financials, whether it is academic measurements in the school – very important in operations. How’s the physical plan?
We had a great school leader. I just enjoyed hearing her every time she spoke, but it was always a rosy picture. It was always a story and here’s another does over. I never asked for the data that made her feel and think the way she was portraying to the board on the health of the school, the health of the operations, the health of the finance, the health of the academics, and more important—let’s go back to why charter schools are called charter schools, the health of the promise in the contract. And that’s really important data to have at your fingertips as well.
SE: What do you think drives the difference between those schools that are extremely successful, versus those that survive, versus those that fail? When I think about charter schools, whether they have the money or the capital that they need to survive and thrive. While that may be a driver of why schools often close as they run out or don’t have the money. I think about schools in these three categories: those that don’t make it at all, those that kind of get along and barely bubble up above the surface but really aren’t able to flourish. And those that really are changing the face of public education by delivering superior quality education to their communities, students, and families. What do you think drives the difference between charter schools that really flourish, those that survive, and those that just fail?
DC: Besides being a board member? I’m a recovering authorizer [all laugh] and I say that lovingly. I was very blessed to be an authorizer, which is an overseeing entity in all the states that have charter schools. It’s another common denominator that you have a public entity that holds that contract. And so, Stewart, I had to make a decision with my team. There was no, “I” at our operation as authorizers. We, I called them the magnificent seven. I had an amazing team of individuals, but we would get petitions, or we would get applications.
Can you imagine that you would have these excited people across from you and they would have great ideas? And, in this very short time period here in California (authorizers have 60 days to decide) and you get a petition –when you don’t know these people, you hear their stories and you have to make a decision whether these people are going to be successful or not. Because what I’m not okay with, and what good authorizers are not okay with are “pop-up campers” where you throw open the school door and you close it.
Because you said something very important in your question. Families and students—should we never forget that it takes a village to raise a child and that our schools are not detached from our communities. So, let’s go back to your question. So, you get the unsuccessful, barely above water’s, going down for the count. And then your very successful schools. The ones that are unsuccessful, typically are not focused, they don’t have the resources lined up, and a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look. “I’ve got this idea. It’s going to work,” but they can’t tell you and they can’t, more importantly, tell themselves how it’s going to work.
This is my 48th year in education. And as I, as I look over those many years, I kind of smile because I would say three-fourths of those many years have been in the traditional district framework. That framework has been alive and existing for hundreds-plus years. And then charter schools are going to start out, and how are we going to have the framework to make it successful? So those are the unsuccessful ones. Great idea, no plan, no understanding of the resources.
The middle ground is they’ve got some backing, they have some resources. Typically, they may not have even asked the community if they would like their model. Typically, they could be anywhere USA and start this school, but they didn’t engage in the community, they didn’t do their market research. I make people nervous with my business background, but I think if you’re going to be in the charter sector, it’s important to have a business background because charter schools are a business as well as an educational entity.
Those middle ground folks. I’ve noticed the common thread in my experience is a detachment from the community, not understanding a connecting to their mission and vision—kind of losing their way. Also, the middle ground could be a great initial first school that should have stayed a great initial first school, but they expanded too fast, blurred the vision.
So, let me go to the successful ones in just my opinion—laser-sharp focus. Is the team connected to the community? Know their kids? Have a board that’s bought in, and shows up, and attends, and is part of the livelihood of the school? Keeping in mind their governance is different than running it, but you have engagement from the board share all the way. And, I love going to some of the high performing schools because typically you won’t find Darlene with the school leader. You’ll find Darlene with the janitor. You’ll find me on the playground. I’ll be with the lunchroom help. And, the reason why I travel everywhere when I go to a school—because no matter who I mentioned, they can tell you the mission. They’re proud of their school. They love showing up every day. Those are the successful ones.
JJ: That’s great. And with that, I think we’ve inspired some charter leaders around the country and we’d like to do this again. So with that, we’re going to end our first discussion with Darlene and Stuart and we’re going to have another one to follow. Thanks, everybody.
SE: Thank you.
DC: Thank you. What a pleasure.
Charter School Capital is committed to the success of charter schools and has solely focused on funding charter schools since the company’s inception in 2007. Our depth of experience working with charter school leaders and our knowledge of how to address charter school financial and operational needs have allowed us to provide over $1.6 billion in support of 600 charter schools that educate 800,000 students across the country. For more information on how we can support your charter school, contact us!