This is the second of two articles about the charter renewal of the Fulton Science Academy.
Last week I talked about how both the Fulton County School Board and the Fulton Science Academy acted poorly when negotiating the school’s charter renewal. Today I’ll discuss why the FCSB was justified to insist on a shorter charter term. But first let’s reveal the elephant in the room…
The Gülen Movement
This is a loosely organized group of followers of a Islamic theologian from Turkey. Here in the states they are heavily involved in education including the formation of dozens of charter schools. Many believe that the Fulton Science Academy is under Gulen influence.
If you search the internet you’ll find a lot of websites and blogs critical of the Gulen movement. Most of them have a heavy conspiracy theory tinge to their writings.
It doesn’t bother me that people of the Islamic faith from Turkey want to open schools here. However…
Gulen opponents earned a boost of credibility when a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist penned a story in the NY Times about the movement. Gulen-run schools have been accused of operating without financial transparency, offering contracts to Turkish-owned businesses without competitive bids and a lot more. Read the NY Times story for yourself.
Fulton Science Academy doesn’t seem to be nearly as shady as the schools outlined in this article. For example, I don’t see a Turkish connection with the contractor they selected to build their new campus. However there are a few conflicts that concern the Fulton County School Board.
FSA spends taxpayer money on services offered by the Grace Institute. It isn’t clear to me how Grace consults the school except that they are an Educational Management Organization. According to tax returns the school continued to spend more and more money on Grace’s services each year. The FCSB insisted that the relationship with Grace end early in 2011. At this point it isn’t clear if all ties have been severed.
Transparency and Accountability
The relationship between FSA and Grace isn’t clear nor are how funds are spent. The linkage is unusual and makes many wonder who is the ultimate governing body of the school. And to make the waters more murky, some FSA board members also served on Grace’s board.
And speaking of boards… The FSA’s board should be made more diverse to include parents, school board officials, or possibly distinguished members of the community.
There are other potential issues but these strike me as the most severe. It isn’t appropriate to offer blanket waivers and maximum contract extensions to a school with such unresolved issues. The Fulton County School Board acted reasonably and responsibly when they insisted on a shorter charter. I believe the Fulton Science Academy is a terrific school. They have the opportunity to be a truly exceptional school if they will do the right thing and operate with more transparency.
The debt and building
And one final note on this issue… I believe the city of Alpharetta’s Development Authority dropped the ball. Here was a group that had the opportunity to question FSA’s dealings yet failed to do so. They failed to notice the conflicts of interest and they didn’t consider the rocky relationship between the school and the school board. The city approved the issuance of revenue bonds and construction on the new campus began. If the charter impasse continues, the school will shut down and default on the debt. And while the city and school board are not on the hook for the debt, a default might create an ugly new problem… another stalled development project in Alpharetta.