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Bill seeks to expand oversight of ARIZONA charters

charter-accountabilityA bill in the Arizona Legislature would force charter schools to follow state purchasing laws and require schools that use private management companies to post salary information.

Senate Bill 1305 follows an investigation by The Arizona Republic in November that outlined how charter-school board members and administrators profit by doing business with their own schools. The purchases range from curriculum and business consulting to textbooks and transportation services. Some schools outsource most of their operations to a board member’s for-profit company.

The deals, worth more than $70 million over the last five years, are legal. But critics of the arrangements say they can lead to conflicts of interest. Many of the schools have exemptions from state procurement law, meaning they aren’t forced to seek competitive bids for purchases.

The bill still faces a battle in the GOP-controlled Legislature just to get heard. Republicans have been big supporters of charter schools and are reluctant to place a lot of restrictions on them.

The legislation would remove the clause in the law that allows charter schools to get exemptions from state purchasing laws. It is sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson.

“I feel like there needs to be a public discussion about this at the Legislature. Folks need to understand these are taxpayer dollars,” she said. “We’ve seen what I consider to be some real concerns.”

Charter-school advocates, such as the Arizona Charter Schools Association, are waiting to see how the legislation moves through the process before commenting, association spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson said.

Charter schools are public schools that are independently run. Most of the state’s 535 charter schools are overseen by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

The board has the authority under state law to grant exemptions to state purchasing laws. Over the years, the board has given exemptions to nearly 90 percent of schools. Some legislators and educators say more regulation is needed to ensure schools get competitive prices.

In January, the state board reviewed its exemption procedures in response to The Republic’s articles. Board members decided not to make changes after charter-school officials said they liked having flexibility when making purchases.

The bill wouldn’t prevent charter schools from contracting with relatives of school officials or board members. But purchases of more than $5,000 would require schools to get oral or written bids, depending on the amount.

The legislation also would require charter schools to publish information about salaries. Schools that contract with management companies would have to post the salaries of company employees on the school’s website.

In Arizona, the companies can be for-profit or non-profit. They provide employees and services to the school, including administrators, teachers and support staff.

Some educators have criticized management companies because there is less financial transparency.

Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University, researches education-management companies. When he sends public-records requests to schools with management companies, the schools often forward the request to the management companies. The companies then refuse to provide the information, he said. Parents, Miron said, have a right to know how much school officials and teachers are paid.

The Arizona legislation also would place restrictions on charter-school governing boards. Boards made up of only family members would have to include at least one person who is unrelated to the others. That person would also have to be the parent of a child at the school. State law doesn’t address charter-school-board makeup now. The provision is designed to cut down on nepotism, said Lopez, the bill’s sponsor.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate’s Education and Government and Environment committees. A hearing date has not yet been set in either committee, a necessary step for the legislation to advance.

Source: AZCentral.com – by Anne Ryman

View more articles on Arizona charter schools

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2013 by in Accountability, Arizona, Charter Schools, Regulation.

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