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Can this controversial plan stop Charlotte’s wave of charter school closings?

A handful of North Carolina’s top charter school advocates, including former state Rep. Rob Bryan of Charlotte, have put together a company they say can save Aristotle Prep, a Charlotte charter school with academic and money problems.

They say they’re stepping up to stop the steady trickle of charter school closings that destabilize Charlotte’s education scene.

“It’s one thing to talk about more options, but we have to make sure these options are quality,” said Darrell Allison, who heads North Carolina’s main school choice advocacy group and is a founder of the new charter management company.

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But state officials said Thursday there are enough conflict-of-interest questions that they want a ruling from North Carolina’s ethics commission before they vote.

“I’m uncomfortable from a business perspective. I’m uncomfortable from an ethical perspective,” said Gregory Alcorn, the state Board of Education member who represents the Charlotte region.

The nation’s fervor for public school choice is playing out in dramatic fashion around the Charlotte region. As advocates for charter schools and vouchers prevail in public office, families have seen a surge of taxpayer-funded alternatives to traditional public schools. Charter schools are growing while school district enrollment stagnates across North Carolina.

But when those new schools fail, as six in Charlotte have in recent years, students’ education and families’ lives are disrupted, while taxpayers are left to wonder whether millions of dollars have been spent unwisely.

The ties are already close between the people who oversee North Carolina’s charter schools and those who run them. North Carolina’s Charter School Advisory Board, made up of charter school leaders, and the Office of Charter Schools, led by former Lincoln Charter School head Dave Machado, play the lead role in authorizing and monitoring charter schools, though the ultimate authority falls to the state Board of Education.

The plan that came before the Board of Education this week would allow Tony Helton, who is already a member of the advisory board and CEO of a foundation that supports Aristotle Preparatory Academy, to take over management of Aristotle in exchange for 5 percent to 10 percent of Aristotle’s revenue. That would likely come to $70,000 to $140,000, Helton said, depending on whether the school makes the academic gains to earn the 10 percent. The actual amount would depend on enrollment and fund-raising.

The board of Helton’s new management company is made up of Bryan, who was a leading school choice advocate during his four years as a state representative; Allison, who heads Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina; and Phillip Byers, president of a foundation that finances charter schools.

The Board of Education was concerned enough about the unusually tangled web of money and connections that they asked for more time and an expert ruling before they sign off.

A rocky start

Aristotle was part of a surge of charter schools that opened in the Charlotte area after the state lifted a 100-school cap in 2011.

After opening in a church basement on the outskirts of uptown Charlotte in August 2013, Aristotle quickly ran afoul of academic and financial standards. In March 2016 it was included in the state’s list of at-risk charter schools based on low test scores and “signs of financial insolvency.”

In fall of 2016 the school received an F from the state and failed to meet academic growth standards. The 2017 ratings will come out this fall.

Last year Aristotle had about 150 students, compared with 550 projected when it got the charter. Because the amount of public money charter schools get is tied to enrollment, a slump in enrollment can create struggles to cover basic costs.

It’s a scenario that has ended in forced closings, with others still at risk. The most recent closing occurred in March, when a quest to save Charlotte’s Community Charter School failed.

Allison said he and Bryan decided it was time to step from advocacy to direct action. A charter management company can recruit a strong school leader, oversee faculty and try to rebuild enrollment and academic success “before we have to go to closure, which has a harsh impact on families and children.”

The Challenge Foundation

Aristotle Prep is a part of the Team CFA network, which evolved from the Colorado-based Challenge Foundation charitable trust. The network currently lists 18 charter schools, most in North Carolina.

Helton, who was appointed to the Charter School Advisory Board by the state House, has taught at Thomas Jefferson Academy in Forest City and been head of school at Brevard Academy, both Team CFA schools. He’s currently CEO of the Team CFA Foundation, which describes itself as providing academic, business and governance support to its schools.

Helton is also CEO of the new Achievement for All Children, a nonprofit company created to manage Aristotle. Byers, the third board member of Achievement for All Children, is president of Challenge Foundation Properties, which helps charter schools find and finance buildings.

That contract between Aristotle Prep and Achievement for All Children requires state Board of Education approval. Alcorn said he has “a fundamental problem” with the proposed arrangement, especially because Aristotle’s board did not seek proposals from other management companies.

Because most members of the Charter School Advisory Board are board members or employees of existing schools, it’s not uncommon for members to recuse themselves from discussion or voting when their schools come up for charter renewal or other action. In this case, the advisory board further distanced itself by asking a three-person panel of state Board of Education members to review the Aristotle Prep plan.

That trio endorsed the plan, as did Machado, who said the new company could provide needed support. But after Alcorn voiced concerns the full board voted unanimously to defer action and get a ruling from the ethics commission.

Allison said he’s not sure whether the new company will eventually seek contracts with other struggling charter schools. “First things first,” he said. “What’s before us now is Aristotle.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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