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What do Charter Schools and the Metro Gang Strike Force Have in Common?

August 26, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow
There is a connection between recent revelations about alleged wrongdoing at the Metro Gang Strike Force and the potential for wrongdoing among Minnesota's charter schools. Despite claims to the contrary, both institutions lack appropriate oversight.

A strong chain of command is essential when an organization is entrusted with educating or protecting citizens using taxpayer money. When those charged with oversight of those groups either fail to do so, then the entire enterprise is at risk, taxpayer money is wasted and citizen trust is ruined.

The connection between the strike force and charter schools is simple: They both have very tenuous allegiance to an elected body. This tenuous connection can lead to inappropriate and ill-advised actions among officials.

The 34-member Metro Gang Strike Force has been implicated in misconduct and is being investigated by the FBI after a scathing report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor in May. Allegedly, Strike Force employees conducted improper seizures of property then took home seized property for personal use.

Oversight for the Strike Force is conducted by the Minnesota Gang and Drug Oversight Council, which has broad responsibilities for drug task forces and gang strike forces throughout the state, and the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board which selects and supervises the strike force's commander, reviews the strike force's operations and approves its expenditures.

The OLA report stated that "Neither the Minnesota Gang and Drug Oversight Council or the Metro Gang Strike Force Advisory Board oversaw the financial practices of the Metro Gang Strike Force, allowing the strike force's commander to determine how the strike force would operate. Those practices put at risk the strike force's ability to safeguard and account for seized assets and maintain the integrity of criminal evidence."

Neither group's membership is elected. Members are appointed by their various city counsels and county commissions. Therefore, the strike force's chain of command is muddied and responsibility for Strike Force actions does not go directly to elected officials.

That same lack of oversight exists among Minnesota's nearly 150 charter schools.

By state law, charter school oversight is provided by three entities: the school's sponsor, the school's board of directors and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

The sponsoring organization is present at the origin of the charter school. After the charter agreement is struck between the sponsor and MDE, the sponsor can be as active or inactive in the daily business of charters as they wish. Understandably, there are some sponsors that are very involved, and some that are involved not at all.  In a positive move, a law passed last spring will require the MDE to check on sponsor activity every five years, with the assumed threat that the school could lose its charter without an active sponsor.

A charter school's board of directors is comprised of teachers and parents elected among the school's teachers and parents. That board hires the executive director who, unlike public school superintendents, is not required to meet the stringent state laws for administrative licensure. The executive director serves at the board's pleasure.

The Department of Education is charged with holding charter schools responsible to state law and provides help when the schools run afoul of any laws.

To sum up, charter schools - which receive roughly $10,500 of state taxpayer money per student (roughly $1,000 more than traditional public school students) - undergoes oversight by sponsors that are not required to be active overseers, boards that are elected by members only, and a bureaucracy with only a tenuous tie to one elected official, the governor.

People are people. Sometimes they act irrationally and do ill-advised things:

When an officer allegedly takes a big screen TV from the impound room and sets it up in his home or sells it to a friend or relative, that's an ill-advised decision;

When the Heart of the Earth Charter School's director is charged with stealing more than $1 million in taxpayer money, that's an ill-advised decision as well.

It's reasonable to assume that neither the officer nor the director thought they would get caught. They probably thought no one was watching.

That's why the chain of command is so terribly important. That's why officers and deputies need to answer to elected county commissioners and city council members through their sheriffs and chiefs, not to non-elected multi-jurisdictional boards. And that's why charter schools should be responsible to elected officials through licensed administrators, not to members of their own charter schools, sponsors that may or may not be involved in the school or a statewide commissioner answerable only to the governor.

While there are some charter schools doing a good job managing their finances, proper oversight is imperative. If it doesn't exist, then rules must be changed to provide it before people do the irrational, ill-advised things people sometimes do.

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