How They Are Getting Away with It

This is not a vendetta. I started researching education policy because of my own, brief experience as a charter school teacher. I have no connection with Haas Hall Academy, the charter school that is currently rated (under our state’s terrible grading system) as the best high school in Arkansas.

Still, after I wrote my first (snarky) Haas Hall article, I found myself at the center of a web of excited informants.

I tried to follow the clues I was receiving. They seemed to point toward a story of corruption, nepotism, and cover-ups. In order to figure out what was really true, I started submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests directly to Haas Hall. Their attorney hemmed, hawed, and hedged, but I verified enough details to write another blog post.

My second blog post got shared by education researcher Mercedes Schneider, so I got even more responses. Some readers expressed disbelief: How could a public school — even a charter school — get away with the financial juggling, school board shenanigans, discrimination, and deception of which I was accusing them? Surely, if these things were true, somebody with actual authority (instead of just a blogging habit) would have stepped in to address them, right?

The Arkansas Department of Education has been keeping certain, sordid details to itself, thus sheltering Haas Hall from the investigative attentions of the State Board of Education.

In 2016, Haas Hall Academy existed as two separate school districts (in Fayetteville and Bentonville) both governed by Superintendent Martin Schoppmeyer, Jr. In an effort to grow his charter schools, Dr. Schoppmeyer applied for an amendment to Haas Hall’s charter that would allow Haas Hall Academy to expand into Springdale, at the Jones Center. (Spoiler Alert: It worked, eventually.)

In the middle of this bureaucratic process, a recently-fired Haas Hall teacher filed a formal complaint with the ADE. I have a copy of this complaint (and you can easily request one too) but I’m going to use the pseudonym “Whistleblower” instead of the complainant’s real name. The Whistleblower’s formal complaint listed 20 areas of concern, including:

  • School employee (without a background check) bullies students.
  • Fundraiser money for specific programs disappears. Students have to pay a second time.
  • Enrollment lottery results do not match students listed in APSCN student register.
  • There is no record of who calls students to inform them of lottery results, when they call, or whether the students accept offered positions. (Leads to the possibility of lottery winners being excluded at the discretion of the person making the phone calls.)
  • Haas Hall’s landlord sued school and won financial judgment regarding broken lease and damaged property.
  • Unlawfully large class sizes (>28 students.)
  • Students unable to meet 2.75 GPA are asked to transfer to another school, so that they do not negatively impact reported 100% graduation rate. No tutoring offered.
  • Faculty meetings include interrogations about which students are likely to perform poorly on end-of-course exams. These students are then removed from the class roster.
  • Faculty not allowed to discuss enrollment lottery publicly.
  • Whistleblower had expressed these concerns internally to Dr. Schoppmeyer in August & September, 2015. In retaliation, Whistleblower had been fired almost immediately.

The Whistleblower filed this complaint on February 17, 2016. Within hours, Haas Hall’s lawyer, Mark Henry, filed a FOIA request to the ADE for a copy of the letter. The next day, three members of the Schoppmeyer dynasty (Martin, Marilyn, and Carin) went with Haas Hall’s attorney, Mark Henry, to the ADE office to meet with Mary Perry, Alexandra Boyd, Kendra Clay, and Jennifer Davis. This meeting had no written agenda, and no written minutes. The ADE never transmitted the complaint to the State Board of Education.

The Whistleblower wasn’t the only person to write to the ADE regarding concerns like this.

  1. Dr. Robert Maranto (of the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform and the Fayetteville school board) wrote to the ADE recommending that Haas Hall should conduct its enrollment lottery in public, according to the best practices of charter schools around the country.
  2. Dr. Gary Compton (on the Advisory Board for the Office of Education Policy, and Assistant Superintendent of Support Services in Springdale Public Schools) wrote to say, “I realize the ADE is not an investigative body, but, in this case, I think some investigative action must be required. To be candid, Haas Hall has simply skimmed off the top in both Fayetteville and Bentonville and that is no secret.” He concluded, “Frankly, I truly think you have no choice as doing nothing is not an option.
  3. Dr. Jim Rollins (Superintendent of Springdale Public Schools) objected, on July 8, 2016, on the grounds that Haas Hall consistently demonstrated failure to adequately desegregate its schools.
  4. Dr. Matthew Wendt (Brand-new Superintendent of Fayetteville Public Schools) requested a postponement of the State Board of Education’s vote, one day before they voted. His letter (emailed directly to members of the board, and to AR Education Commissioner Johnny Key) reads: “I write to ask that you delay a decision on this amendment request until your October board meeting, or later if necessary, which will allow me the time to meet with Dr. Schoppmeyer and others to learn more about the request. The expansion of Haas Hall Academy has a potentially significant impact on the future planning for our school district. . . . To best represent the public school district in Fayetteville, I ask for time to meet with those involved and be educated on the long-term planning and goals of Haas Hall Academy.

State Board of Education Meeting, 6–9–16

Of these five cautionary letters sent to the ADE, I can only find evidence that three (Maranto, Rollins, and Wendt) actually made their way to the members of the State Board of Education.

Update 1/24/19: Current board chairperson Dr. Jay Barth confirmed, on January 9, 2019, that he never received a copy of the Whistleblower’s letter while the state board was considering Haas Hall’s application to expand.

Update 1/19/19: Former board member Mireya Reith confirmed, yesterday, that she never received a copy of the Whistleblower’s letter while she was serving on the state board.

This, despite the specific request that board members Dr. Jay Barth and Ms. Mireya Reith made, on June 9, 2016, for the production of ALL “tangible concerns” that the ADE and Haas Hall had received regarding Haas Hall’s enrollment lottery and its graduation requirements.*

The Whistleblower letter went to many, many representatives of the ADE.** It also apparently triggered an ADE audit of Haas Hall’s lottery process the following month. However, the Arkansas Department of Education, under the direction of Education Commissioner Johnny Key, chose not to provide a copy to the State Board of Education. Furthermore, although the Whistleblower followed up (in April) with a formal request for a hearing, that request was never honored or disclosed to the Board.

Why does it matter what goes to the State Board of Education, versus what just goes to the ADE?

As Dr. Compton acknowledged in his letter requesting an investigation, the ADE is not an investigative body. According to the Quality Education Act of 2003, only the State Board of Education can determine whether to take action against a school or school district who is breaking state laws or failing to meet the standards for accreditation.

Just because the ADE receives a complaint doesn’t mean they are obligated to investigate it.

And, apparently, just because the State Board of Education explicitly asks for a copy of all complaints received by the ADE (so that the Board can fulfill its governing role effectively) doesn’t mean that Johnny Key will actually hand them over.

Yesterday, I asked Commissioner Key, “Would you care to comment on your decision not to investigate, answer, or disclose these written complaints?”

His response: “Thank you. We will review your questions and respond.” But it’s been more than a week now, and still no response. I’ll be sure to update this post when he sends a more detailed message!

But I get it, I do.

In the middle of the 2016 Haas Hall expansion process, Johnny Key was under a lot of pressure to pursue the vision of “school choice” (as a euphemism for school deregulation and privatization) being marketed across the country. In addition to feeling pressure from professional lobbyists within Little Rock, Commissioner Key also received a letter from Al Lemke of Gentry, AR, criticizing the State Board of Education’s initial decision to deny Haas Hall’s expansion request:

I just noticed in the paper that some of YOUR bureaucrats have decided to stifle the most prolific schools in the state, Haas Hall Academy. I cannot imagine the purpose for this slap in the face for Haas Hall Academy. I have no connection to Hass Hall but am interested in changing the state’s dictatorship in education. You folk in Little Rock are not the necessarily the brightest in these 50 united states, so quit acting like it! With 48 or 49 states having higher ACT scores than Arkansas, I would think successful market-driven approaches would be endorsed and supported. Changing to Conversion Schools is like putting lipstick on a pig to make it more presentable to parents. I would also suggest taking some lessons from Haas Hall!

Don’t worry, though. It’s not too late. Dr. Jay Barth, who originally asked to see these complaints that the ADE never disclosed, is still on the State Board of Education (for a little while longer.) In fact, he’s the chairperson now.

If the State Board of Education finds that Haas Hall is out of compliance with state law or the Rules for Accreditation, they can “Reconstitute the leadership of a school district by removing permanently or suspending on a temporary basis the superintendent of the school district or any particular board members of a school district.”

Honestly, if we can get the Schoppmeyer dynasty out of the Haas Hall schools — and insist on school board transparency — Haas Hall might finally start sticking to the whole “open-enrollment” concept, instead of making liars out of the lobbyists who defend it.

*In case you’re interested, you can see the complete set of documents produced in response to this request here — beginning at page 500 or so.

**Mark Gotcher, Deborah Coffman, Alexandra Boyd, and Kendra Clay. Additionally, Mary Perry and Jennifer Davis attended the meeting the next day. (These are big names at the ADE, so I bet they took it straight to Johnny Key. Can’t prove this part, though.)