Opening a charter school without knowing the facts: The elephant in the room.
This is not about whether you are a fan of charter schools or choice. This is, however, an interesting case about transparency and accountability. This particular story has been covered extensively by Mercedes Schneider, teacher and blogger. You can read about her research on this story here, here, and here. We are reposting a condensed version of her vast coverage, and a few new wrinkles, in hopes of shedding light on the many questions this raises.
In a nutshell:
- A self-claimed “grassroots” Montessori Charter School, Great Work, was recently proposed (and denied) in a Colorado district.
- Last week, some of the folks representing the proposed charter school appealed this denial to the Colorado Board of Education, whom after hearing comments from attorneys/reps on both sides, sent the decision back to the Jefferson County School District for re-consideration.
Why is this interesting? Listen to this December 14 audio/ partial transcripts from the Colorado Board of Ed hearing, posted by Mercedes. (Great Work testimony begins at 14-minute mark.)
If you listened to the audio, read the blogs from Mercedes, you would know that this particular Great Work Montessori School has ties to Walton money, as in James Walton, grandson of Sam Walton, billionaire, whose Walton Foundation also funds Jeb Bush’s Pro-Common Core, Foundation for Excellence in Education.
- The proposed Great Work Montessori Charter will lease the land from a nonprofit known as TGNA, according to Mr. Bethke, Great Work attorney. However, as you will see, TGNA is apparently NOT a nonprofit, it is an LLC, and sources say TGNA is tied to Walton. (More on that later.)
- Children will be charged tuition to attend this public Great Work Montessori preschool. (Great Work will charge $1,500 per month for 3 and 4 year olds; this is nearly twice the tuition for neighboring Denison Montessori.) Even if they reduce the rate by half, how many neighborhood families can afford even a sliding scale fee of $750 a month, per child at Great Work? How will this expensive school serve the many low-income families in the area? The Great Work budget depends on 30% of their students to pay full tuition; this was a budget concern addressed by the Jefferson County School Board.
- During the Colorado State Board of Ed meeting, you can hear Mr. Bethke, the attorney for the proposed Great Work Montessori Charter, state that the proposed site of the new Great Work Charter is an “under-served area, with no existing pre-schools in the area.” However, you can see by the map, there are several existing elementary schools and preschools in the vicinity, including Montessori schools/preschools very near the proposed Great Work Montessori Charter site, at 5300 W. Center Avenue 80226. ie: Little Lyceum Montessori (preschool starts at 2 months) is 0.5 miles from the proposed GW Montessori. Denison Montessori (preschool starts at 3 years old) is 1.8 miles from proposed GW Montessori. What will happen to these existing, nearby schools if Great Work Montessori moves in? .
- The proposed Great Work Montessori Charter is being promoted as a “parent-led” grassroots charter. However, Great Work did not have parents included on their board, until the district objected, and asked for parents to be included on the school’s governing board.
- When questioned who owns the land where the school is to be built, the attorney resisted answering, saying it was irrelevant. Odd? Finally, after a few looks at the 2 other folks at the table who were representing the charter, and several looks to the back of the room, the attorney relented and said the land was owned by a nonprofit. It took a few more looks at each other and to the back of the room, to finally answer the next question: The name of the nonprofit who owns the land is TGNA. Then, when asked whether this Great Work Montessori Charter was simply looking to make money by investing in the land, the attorney said this would be impossible, because the land is owned by a nonprofit.
- Is TGNA really a nonprofit? As Mercedes points out, the Colorado Secretary of State Website says no. TGNA is listed as an LLC. Unlike a nonprofit, TGNA LLC, (as this Walton-Gates symposium points out), is capable of raising rent, taking advantage of generous tax credits for investments in charter schools in underserved areas and profiting from the land/charter investment. TGNA is registered in Delaware, and the registered owner is a mystery. Delaware law allows corporations to use a registered agent for their company. The registered agent of TGNA, according to the Delaware state division of corporations, is The Corporation Trust Company, which acts as an anonymous agent for corporations. So, why call TGNA a nonprofit when it is not? Why hide who owns TGNA? Why can’t we know who is receiving the rent check every month from the Great Work Montessori Lease? This is very curious and shouldn’t the true owner of TGNA be clarified?
- The district stated that the number of commitments to enroll in the proposed Great Work Montessori Charter School have not been verified. If Great Work doesn’t get enough children to enroll, the school’s budget cannot be met. Apparently, after the district questioned the actual number of commitments, the number of students committed to enroll rose significantly from around 20 to 185 students, but no one has seen the actual list.
- For trainers to become Montessori AMI certified is expensive and takes YEARS. There already exists a Montessori Institute in Denver that does this training. Walton has plans to open a Montessori teacher training center in Colorado. Will the Great Work Charter use this training center and if so, is it the same caliber, same pedagogy, same requirements as established AMI training center in Denver? To Montessori folks, this is an important question. Will Walton’s proposed Great Work school be watered-down Montessori?
- With all of the Walton money tied to this school, is Great Work a for-profit charter? (Since for-profit charters are prohibited in Colorado, shouldn’t this be clarified?)
- Since this proposed school charges tuition, and receives funding from Walton, is Great Work a private school or a public school? “The charter planned to rely partly on grants from the Walton Foundation and on tuition, up to $1,500 per month, from parents of pre-K students, to cover the budget.”
- Some additional questions: How will the school address parent opt-out (per Colorado law HB1323)? How will the school handle IEPs, children with disabilities and special needs? Will anyone be turned away? How will the school handle, share children’s personal data? Since Great Work preschool starts from birth, can we see the data sharing policy? (Will Walton, with all of its ties, have access to student data and education records?)
- To whom is the proposed Great Work Montessori Charter accountable?
A wealth of information: It would seem that others have posed similar questions and gone to Great Lengths to show the network of Great Work. This article and graphic has loads of documented sources by a group who calls themselves CAREColoradoKids.org:
“There are three “Great Work” nonprofits worthy of note:
- Great Work, Inc. (EIN 46-3184270), located in… wait for it… Bentonville, Arkansas, and granted nonprofit status in June 2014
- Great Work Education Holdings, Inc. (EIN 47-1688990), also located in Bentonville, Arkansas, and granted nonprofit status in May 2015
- Great Work Montessori Learning Community, Inc. (EIN 47-1688990), located at 6001 W 16TH AVE, LAKEWOOD CO, and granted nonprofit status in November 2015
Great Work Education Holdings has one tax form: great-work-ed-holdings-2014-990
According to the 2013 Great Work, Inc., tax form, Great Work, Inc., was started on August 07, 2013, with a $93,000 contribution. (That contribution came from the Walton Family Foundation according to its 2013 annual report.)
The Great Work, Inc., tax form was prepared by Walton Enterprises– which happens to have the same address as Great Work, Inc.: P.O. Box 1860, Bentonville, AR 72712.
The organization’s primary exempt purpose is noted as follows:
GREAT WORK, INC. IS ORGANIZED TO PROMOTE AND DEVELOP THE ART AND SCIENCE OF MONTESSORI EDUCATION AND GUIDE THE PREPARATION OF EDUCATORS WHO TRANSFORM LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS, AND TO CONDUCT SUCH OTHER RELATED EDUCATIONAL, CHARITABLE AND SCIENTIFIC ACTIVITIES AS MAY BE DETERMINED BY THE CORPORATION’S BOARD OF DIRECTORS.
The Great Work, Inc., board of directors is listed as follows [and is the same board for Great Work Education Holdings Inc.]:
- James Walton, executive director
- Naccaman Williams, secretary
- Rick Chapman, Assistant Secretary
- Bob Smith, Treasurer
Naccaman Williams is the “special interest programs director” for the Walton Family Foundation. Bob Smith is the accounting and operations director of the Walton Family Foundation. Rick Chapman is (was?) the Walton Family Foundation chief financial officer.
Great Work, Inc., could not be more Walton. Not one board member from Colorado.
The chief purpose of Great Work Education Holdings, Inc., is to purchase land and buildings. In 2014, Great Work Education Holdings, Inc., purchased the following in Colorado:
- 1600 W. 16th building: $269,332
- 1600 Ingalls: $426,352
- 1600 W. 16th land: $145,025
This is the property on which Great Work Montessori [currently] sits. (Note that 1600 W. 16th is the Great Work address, with the 1600 Ingalls property contiguous to the 1600 W. 16th address.)
The short of it is that James Walton is the Great Work Montessori landlord.”
Clearly, this is a confusing framework. If you need a detailed diagram to figure out who is opening up a school, you hold quasi-judicial hearings, and still cannot find the answers, that should tell you something. Why the obfuscation? This should not be a situation where you have to pass it to find out what’s in it. The public (and parents) grow leery and weary of education reform lobbying and corporate manipulation when dealing with children. The lack of transparency is precisely why there is such distrust of charters.
As this Propublica article, When Charter Schools Are Nonprofit in Name Only, states,
“What is clear is that it can be hard for regulators and even schools themselves to follow the money when nearly all of it goes into the accounts of a private company.”
Due diligence and bad precedent? How can a board vote on this proposed charter without having all the facts?
This may be a terrific school, but questions remain. If this school is a good model, surely there is no reason to hide the facts. If James Walton is indeed funding this Great Work Montessori Charter, if he is the Executive Director of Great Work Education Holdings Inc., Great Work Inc., and possibly also TGNA –who reportedly owns the land, and if TGNA apparently is not a nonprofit corporation, wouldn’t the most direct way to resolve these questions, be just to ask James Walton himself?
We wonder why James Walton wasn’t included in the conversation, as he was present at the December State Board Meeting, seated at the back of the room.