Massachusetts education officials are preparing to impose several conditions Tuesday on the operating licenses of two high-
performing charter schools in Boston to address concerns about possible conflict of interest and to clear up any confusion over who is running the schools.
The proposed conditions for Match Charter Public School and Match Community Day Public Charter School center around affiliated businesses created to help acquire buildings for school use and to disseminate their often-praised tutoring and teacher preparation programs to other public schools, according to a memo by Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education.
Chester said he is recommending the conditions as a precaution and has no reason to believe that any violations of state rules or laws have occurred.
“I want to make sure among Match’s initiatives that there is appropriate legal and ethical relationships and separation among those pieces,” Chester said in an interview.
Match has been the most aggressive among the state’s charter schools in sharing its practices with other schools, and it has evolved into separate businesses for them, although managed by affiliated organizations.
For instance, a separate organization called the Match Charter School Foundation runs a consulting service that helps other schools replicate the Match Schools’ “high-
dosage” tutoring program, credited with improving scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. In addition, individuals tied with Match launched the Charles Sposato Graduate School of Education to bolster its teacher training program.
But lines between the organizations are blurry at times. All the entities, including the charter schools, are marketed under the Match Education name and share a website, office space, and, in most cases, a common chief executive officer, Stig Leschly. Several other individuals also work for more than one of the entities, according to the state.
Although it is perfectly legal for the Match schools to establish the affiliated businesses, school officials need to pay careful attention to how they separate the finances of the publicly funded schools and privately financed businesses, state officials say.
Match says it will comply with the conditions, which are scheduled for a vote Tuesday by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“Match has always been and will continue to be transparent with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and to comply with all regulations,” Match officials said in a statement. “These conditions are technicalities that we are willing to address quickly. It’s in our students’ best interest and in our movement’s best interest for public and private entities to partner in education. Match is an example of how that can be done well.”
The conditions would require Match to seek opinions from the State Ethics Commission about charter school employees or trustees who hold positions at the private institutions and to contact the “appropriate public employee retirement boards no later than March 14, 2014, to ensure that employee time has been properly reported.”
A third condition instructs Match to clarify on its website and in marketing materials that the charter schools are public institutions. Currently, the website says that Match Education operates the charter schools, giving the impression to some that the schools might be private. Charter schools in Massachusetts are operated by boards of trustees.
“I want to be clear I have been very positive about their work in school and their kind of tutoring and teaher preparation,” Chester said. “They are inventive and a tremendous asset to the Massachusetts educational landscape.”
State charter school regulators first began raising questions about Match and its various entities in May 2012 after conducting a site visit. Match officials presented the regulators with an organizational chart indicating the schools were operated by Match Education, according to a copy of the site-visit report.
Match officials later clarified that the charter schools were operated by the board of trustees and that Match Education was merely a brand name being used to encapsulate all their various entities. They also said Leschly “made all the appropriate filings and disclosure regarding his positions” with the Ethics Commission, according to a October 2012 letter to the state.
The issue is resurfacing now because Match and Match Community Day are seeking to consolidate into a single charter school instead of operating separately, a proposal that is also up for a state board vote Tuesday.
The proposed conditions come months after some tutors raised questions in the fall about whether Match was following state miniminum wage laws.
Match officials acknowledged they may have been out of sync and adopted several remedies, such as introducing time cards and paying $82,000 in back wages.