Testimony of Shannon Hodge, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Kingsman Academy Public Charter School, at the District of Columbia Committee on Education & Committee of the Whole Performance Oversight Hearing
February 15, 2019
Good morning, Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso, and members of the Council. I am Shannon Hodge, co-founder and executive director of Kingsman Academy, a public charter middle and high school in Ward 6. Kingsman Academy serves about 300 students in grades 6 through 12, in a project-based academic program that emphasizes a therapeutic approach to education.
I first became involved in education in D.C. not as a school leader but as an attorney. In 2013, as an associate at Hogan Lovells, I was tasked with supporting this Committee on Education and its then chairman David Catania on several education reform proposals. As part of my work, I delved deeply into issues of accountability and D.C.’s unique education landscape.
I later learned much more about education in D.C. as one of the attorneys representing the court-appointed receiver of Options Public Charter School. From that experience, I gained a greater understanding of charter school operations, including the numerous requirements of the School Reform Act that hold charter schools responsible and accountable for the public funds that allow them to exist. And because Options relinquished its charter following allegations of financial mismanagement, I saw firsthand what can happen when the public loses confidence in how its dollars are spent.
Today, as a charter school leader who has not yet shaken the legal background that I brought with me into this work, I understand the benefits and the costs of increased transparency. Each year, I submit hundreds of pages of documents to the DC PCSB, providing details and insight into my school’s financial decisionmaking, procurement process and outcomes, teacher salaries, teacher retention, and insurance coverage. Each year, I submit audited financial statements prepared by a DC PCSB-approved firm. Every quarter, I submit minutes of the meetings of my school’s board of trustees. And each year, I submit an annual report detailing my school’s operations, priorities, and progress on agreed-upon goals. In the last twelve months alone, I have submitted 103 documents to the DC PCSB for their review, not including other information exchanged by email and through databases. Because the DC PCSB is subject to the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), that information is available to the public.
The DC PCSB, as a government agency, is well-equipped to respond to FOIA requests. Single-site charter schools like mine are not. We simply do not have and cannot afford the infrastructure necessary to respond to FOIA requests. Even I, as an attorney, could not handle this work for my school. A quick review of just a handful of FOIA appeals for education-related agencies demonstrates that the work of reviewing FOIA requests, identifying which of the dozen or so exemptions may or may not apply, conducting the necessary searches, compiling the responsive records, and sending them out in the mandatory time frame requires a team of people we simply do not have and cannot afford. In addition, being responsive to appeals and improper requests would be a drain on resources better spent on improving student outcomes.
I am certainly not opposed to transparency. I take seriously the trust placed in me to manage public dollars in a responsible manner that advances the cause of student learning. And I take additional steps, like announcing our board meetings on our website and meeting regularly with my school’s Faculty and Staff Advisory Council, to make sure that I am being responsive to stakeholders’ questions and concerns. And with the DC PCSB’s Transparency Hub, I can be assured that the public has access to relevant information in a clear, straightforward manner.
In closing, I would like to reiterate that making charter schools subject to FOIA would be unduly burdensome, particularly because so much of the information that would be requested is already provided to the DC PCSB.
Thank you, Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso, and members of the Council, for your time and your attention to this matter.