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Maritime Charter School: The Buck Stops (W)here?

This week the Buffalo News reported that student answer sheets on last summer’s Regents exams at the Maritime Charter School had been doctored, with incorrect responses replaced with the correct choice. For a school structured around a military-style chain of command rooted in integrity and discipline, one would imagine that an ethical lapse of this magnitude would shake its leaders to their core and prompt a period of serious introspection and change.

But the fraudulent changing of Regents exam scores is not the first such incident the school had seen. Despite wrapping itself in the Marine rhetoric of Semper Fidelis, Maritime’s six year history can be read as a series of moral mishaps and illegal activity. Highlights (or should we say, lowlights) include: the misappropriation of nearly $100K, leading to a jail term for one employee engaged in the theft; another $10K in missing federal grant money; the improper hiring of an administrator with a criminal record; and the possibly fraudulent use of PTA funds.

How did the Board of Regents, the school’s authorizer, choose to respond to such clear examples of a school in need of intervention and assistance? Renew its charter for six more years.

The renewal was quite a coup for Maritime’s leadership at a time when charter and district schools across the state are being closed for much less. How did they achieve it? By following a simple formula: blame the educators and praise the management. School leaders promoted a narrative of a valiant principal working to undo the damage of rogue staff members. This narrative, however, ignores a stark reality: a pattern of fraud and misconduct that pervades the administrations of multiple principals is a sign of a fundamental flaw in institutional culture and leadership. It is a sign of a school in need of adult supervision.

The package of reforms to New York charter school legislation sponsored by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senator John Sampson and supported by the UFT might not be able to rescue Maritime from its culture of corruption, but it will create the conditions to find and save the next at risk charter school. The bill raises the level of accountability and transparency at public charter schools to that of traditional district schools, making it easier to identify and counter fraud and its root causes earlier and more effectively. It also excludes for-profit management companies from operating charter schools, a practice that has taken millions of tax dollars from charter school students to line the pockets of charter school executives who pay themselves AIG level salaries.

Why does charter school management at the New York Charter School Association and the New York City Charter School Center continue to oppose such legislation, when it would keep the charter school sector from more Maritime Charter Schools?