Sheila Joseph, the disgraced founder of East New York Preparatory Charter School, was once a rising star in New York’s charter school movement. Today, she has become a stark symbol of why New York charter schools so desperately need the accountability and transparency reforms, the guards against profiteering and the guarantees of teacher and parent voice advocated by the UFT and elected officials.
Born in Rockaway, Joseph attended Berkeley, got a law degree at Georgetown, and for three years served as a Teaching Fellow. She received a cool $100K from Joel Klein’s Charter Center and was a fellow at Building Excellent Schools, the well-heeled training program for hard-charging charter CEOs. Heralded as “the first African American woman to found a charter school in New York,” she is the star of an upcoming documentary and was even honored by Maybelline as a leader in education reform. With a back-story like this, what could possibly go wrong?
Just about everything. As reported by Gotham Schools and the New York Post, Joseph ran ENY Prep as if it were her personal fiefdom, telling parents, teachers, students and her own board members that it was her way or the highway. From the City’s own (and understated) report, her “superintendent” salary was repeatedly increased without any Board deliberation; Joseph allowed “broad discrepancies” in her accounting of student enrollment — the very basis of ENY Prep’s $2.6 million in public revenue; she remained on the school’s Board of Trustees (voting on her own compensation, no less) despite a City order for her to resign; she submitted incomplete financial disclosure forms. Most damning, the City found in the school’s Board “a lack of interest or ability in overseeing the academic, operational or fiscal operations of the school.”
But that’s only half the story. All, ALL, of ENY Prep’s teachers left or were fired last year. The State Education Department found that Joseph discharged 48 students, conveniently before state exams were given, and disabled students were “counseled” out of the school. In commenting on the findings, the City’s charter schools chief Mike Duffy described them as the worst violations he’d ever seen.
In a shameless effort to barricade their positions, the New York Charter School Association and the NYC Center for Charter School Excellence have claimed that ENY Prep’s likely closure is proof that charter “accountability” is working, and needs no reform. But their case is as weak as it is theoretical:
Take, for starters, that 100 percent of the ENY Prep students who took last year’s math exam met or exceeded state standards; 86 percent met or exceeded the standard in ELA. Despite Joseph’s arrogance and dysfunction, teachers and students were accountable for their responsibilities and performed at a high level.
And consider the courageous, if distressed, efforts by parents to stop Joseph’s reign of terror. In this widely circulated letter, concerned parents chronicled years of malpractice — from the dissolution of the school’s founding board and Joseph’s efforts to block a parent association to a pattern of student expulsions and teachers living in fear of termination. Parents were accountable for their responsibilities, and took action to improve the school.
If charter sector accountability was working, why didn’t city and state officials step up their oversight when Joseph paid herself $217,000 in 2006-07 (nearly 13 percent of the school’s gross revenue)? Why weren’t the red flags noticed when ENY Prep omitted teacher turnover data on their mandatory state reports? Didn’t officials notice all those board resignations and student “withdrawals”?
Finally, why did Klein’s charter chief only investigate the school after parents raised concerns and after Joseph’s damage was done? Why, having failed so miserably at providing oversight of a school they chartered, are Klein and Mayor Bloomberg fighting against efforts to bring real accountability to the New York charter sector?
The fact of the matter is that the charter sector remains unaccountable to students, parents, and the public at large. Although some individual charters take their public responsibilities seriously, the sector does not have sufficient safeguards against Joseph’s kind of abuse. As Mona Davids, head of the New York Charter Parents Association has expressed, parents have insufficient recourse to fight against inexcusable practices. As Juan Gonzalez has reported, the charter sector has invited corruption, self-dealing, and profiteering. Left unchecked, Gonzalez warns that Bloomberg’s “mad rush” to create more charters without meaningful accountability will unleash “bigger financial scandals than in the bad old days of community school boards.”
In early January, the UFT proposed a series of reforms to make charter schools more accountable and transparent to the students, parents, and public that charters must serve and to the teachers they employ. The UFT was joined by many elected officials who see the same abuses and know they must be put to an end.
These recommendations called for:
- limits on charter school administrator and management salaries to within the appropriate range of public sector compensation,
- empowering the City and State comptrollers to audit charter schools’ fiscal, operational, and programmatic activities,
- holding charter school board members and employees to the same and rigorous financial disclosure requirements and conflict of interest prohibitions as all other public officials,
- more timely public reporting of all sources of a charter school’s funding and all fees paid to outside consultants and contractors; employee names and salaries, including data on teacher turnover; annual budgets; and audited financial statements;
- establishing independent parent associations or parent and teacher associations and school leadership teams similar to those required in district public schools, and
- automatic recognition of the unions that represent employees in the school district where a charter is located as the representative of workers in charter schools for the negotiation of de novo contracts.
If adopted, these proposals would strengthen the charter sector’s accountability and transparency. Had they existed prior to Sheila Joseph’s arrival on the charter scene, many of her transgressions could have been avoided. Parents would not be scrambling to find a new school. Teachers would not be afraid to speak up, would not face retaliation, and could negotiate a contract with management that is custom-tailored to their school.
To these proposals we’d like to add one more — state receivership. It is unconscionable that in places like East New York Preparatory Charter School and Merrick Academy Charter School, the students, parents, and teachers are punished for the failures of the school’s Board of Trustees and the city and state’s lackluster “oversight.” In these instances, the state must have the authority to take over the charter school and re-constitute the board of trustees. This will allow successful schools — as measured by the hard work of students, teachers, and parents — to continue and blossom under leadership that actually puts children first. That would be real, not punitive and theoretical, accountability.
 Not content with just one fellow, Klein and Co. have paid Building Excellent Schools nearly $1 million since 2004 to produce more CEOs like Joseph — with similarly disastrous results.