For-profit charter school operators grease NC politicians’ palms to ensure they get a piece of the pie

image by John deVille

Representatives of an Arizona-based for-profit charter school operator have been writing campaign checks to North Carolina elected officials who are in positions to guarantee our tax dollars keep flowing their direction.

Both Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt have received thousands from these charter operators in the past few months.

But as we all know, gifts of money often come with expectations.

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2023 has been a particularly grueling year in North Carolina for fans of public education and democracy. 

Heading into this year’s long session, Democrats had held off a Republican supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly by the thinnest of margins–just one seat in the House.

That all changed in April when Mecklenburg County Representative Tricia Cotham betrayed her donors, volunteers and voters by changing parties just months after being elected as a progressive Democrat.

Cotham’s betrayal guaranteed that, if the GOP voted in lockstep, Republicans could pass any law they wanted to without worrying about a gubernatorial veto.

What followed was a veritable avalanche of terrible policy.

Among many other changes which are not the focus of this article, state lawmakers stripped the State Board of Education of its authority to approve or deny charter school applications. 

This drastic move followed the board’s denial on two occasions of a charter for American Leadership Academy in Monroe, a school managed by an well-connected out-of-state company and on whose school board Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson’s wife happens to hold a seat.

But of course in North Carolina that could never be the end of the story.

Timeline of American Leadership Academy Monroe charter shenanigans:

Spring 2022:

Arizona-based for-profit charter management company Charter One completes a “fast track” application to open a charter school called American Leadership Academy in Monroe, NC in one year rather than the standard two years it normally takes to receive approval.  

The ALA Monroe application lists Wyoming attorney Mitchell Schwab as the school’s board chair.  The board includes Yolanda Hill, wife of Lieutenant Governor and voting member of the State Board of Education Mark Robinson.  Longtime NC charter proponent Gregg Sinders is listed as a point of contact.  Unsurprisingly, Charter One is named as the school’s education management organization (EMO).

(Side note:  an application for American Leadership Academy in Garner completed the same day shows an identical board.)

Yolanda Hill explains on the application that she was specifically recruited by Charter One for participation on the board.  That raises an important question: Why would this out-of-state company want Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson’s wife involved?  She doesn’t live in Union County where the school will be located, and she has no prior experience serving on a school board.

The ALA Monroe application is officially submitted for review in June 2022. 

Background on Charter One:

Charter One was founded by Arizona businessman Glenn Way.  Way is a native of Utah and served in that state’s legislature before resigning when his wife took out a protective order against him, alleging he had threatened her life in front of their five children.

Way then moved to Arizona where his charter management business exploded thanks to lax charter regulations and no-bid contracts, and in recent years he’s been expanding into North Carolina.

Charter One’s current North Carolina schools include Wake Preparatory Academy in Wake Forest, Bonnie Cone Leadership Academy in Huntersville, and American Leadership Academy campuses in Clayton and Wilmington.

Way’s business practices involve purchasing land, building schools on them and then selling them to the American Leadership Academy company where he served as chair.  (This very informative post explains exactly how the real estate side of Way’s business model works.)   A 2019 Arizona Republic investigation turned up numerous examples of American Leadership Academy paying millions in public dollars to companies owned by Way or his relatives, including a company his son owns that supplies athletic clothing and apparel. 

Asked whether the charter industry was an appropriate way to make money, Way responded, “It’s no different than building a Walmart.”

But back to the North Carolina timeline.

December 2022:

The North Carolina State Board of Education denies American Leadership Academy Monroe’s charter.  Board members are concerned about giving state money to a for-profit corporation (ALA Monroe would be sending 15% of its state and potentially also federal funding to Charter One).  The board is also wary of Charter One’s rapid expansion in NC without sufficient evidence of academic success, as well as ALA Monroe’s proposed governance structure.

So what’s wrong with the governance structure?

Well, it turns out that Mitchell Schwab, who you may recall is listed as the board chair on ALA Monroe’s application, is also an attorney for a law firm that is closely linked with Charter One.  Schwab’s LinkedIn page shows he’s been employed by Denali Law since May 2020, first in Arizona where Charter One is headquartered and then in Afton, Wyoming from September 2021 to present, with a specialization in charter school law listed.  Schwab is also named as the primary Charter One company official in the NC Secretary of State’s business database.

In a July 2023 interview, Schwab explained that his work for Charter One included expanding the organization into North and South Carolina “along with another attorney.”

Denali is a small firm with just three attorneys listed, including one Michael Way who happens to be Glenn Way’s son.  More on Michael later.

January 2023:

American Leadership Academy Monroe’s application for a charter is brought back in early January for reconsideration.  As few of the prior concerns have been addressed, the State Board again rejects the application at its January 5 meeting.

On January 19 the John Locke Foundation mouthpiece Carolina Journal publishes an op-ed by Michael Way decrying the State Board’s decision, painting Charter One as the victim of a political agenda and vowing to continue the fight.  Presumably Way is referring to both the fight for school choice and the fight for fat stacks of North Carolina taxpayer money.

As an interesting side note, Way’s bio on the op-ed says he, “​​along with his wife and four children, has grown deep roots and an appreciation for their home in the greater Raleigh area.”  Indeed, Wake County property records show that both Michael and his brother Jordan purchased homes in Wake Forest NC in the spring of 2021.  However, Michael’s root-measuring skills appear to be somewhat lacking as both homes were put up for sale in October 2023, and a Wake Preparatory Academy Facebook post indicates the brothers have moved back to Arizona. 

February and March 2023:

February 8: NC Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson is keynote speaker at an “Explore School Choice” event in Arizona organized by Charter One.

Beginning that same day, Robinson receives $24,400 in campaign donations from people employed by Charter One.  Remember that in addition to serving as LG, Robinson is a voting member of the State Board of Education and GOP frontrunner to be the state’s next governor, and his wife sits on the boards of three American Leadership Academy charter schools in North Carolina.  

Here are the 2023 Charter One Robinson donations to date:

Nathan Hunsaker C1 SE VP Charter One Knightdale, NC 2/8/2023 $5000 

William Guttery, CEO Charter One Queen Creek, AZ 2/9/2023 $5000 

Robert Plowman, Finance Charter One Gilbert, AZ 2/9/2023 $5000 

Michael Way Education Charter One Wake Forest, NC  2/23/2023 $3600

Gregg Sinders, Director Charter One Holly Springs, NC 3/26/2023 $800

Jordan Way Education Charter One Wake Forest, NC  3/28/2023 $5000

You can review Mark Robinson’s 2023 campaign donations for yourself here, retrieved from the NC State Board of Elections website.

(This is not the first time Robinson has received money from Charter One folks. In 2021 he got a total of $8500, the majority of it from Gregg Sinders and $2800 from Michael Way. Coincidentally enough, that same year he headlined a ribbon cutting ceremony for American Leadership Academy Coastal in Wilmington.)

March 2023:

Union County senators Todd Johnson and David Craven file a bill that would force the State Board of Education to approve the charter application of ALA Monroe (Monroe lies in Union County). 

A spokesperson for Charter One tells WCNC that the company “worked in conjunction with the board of directors for ALA Monroe and the two lawmakers to make the bill possible.

The bill is sent to the Senate rules committee and never emerges.

April 2023:

Three days after formally switching her party registration from Democrat to Republican, Representative Tricia Cotham files HB 618, a bill which would take away the State Board of Education’s power to approve or deny charter applications and instead give that responsibility to the Charter School Review Board.  The  Charter School Review Board has 11 voting members–8 appointed by the General Assembly, 2 appointed by the State Board of Education who must be advocates for charter schools and the final member is…wait for it…the Lieutenant Governor (or his designee).

The bill also gives the State Superintendent (currently Republican Catherine Truitt who happens to be running for reelection next year) authority to appeal decisions of the Charter School Review Board within 10 days of the Review Board’s decision.

June 2023:

HB 618 passes the House and the Senate and is ratified on June 28.

Catherine Truitt receives the maximum donations allowed by law from two Charter One employees:

Gregg Sinders, Director Charter One Holly Springs, NC 6/29/2023 $6400

Glenn Way Founder Charter One Queen Creek, AZ 6/30/2023 $6400

You read that right: the big guy himself, Charter One founder Glenn Way, donated the maximum possible amount to the political campaign of our state superintendent just two days after a bill making her the only person who could appeal approval of ALA Monroe’s charter is ratified.

You can review Catherine Truitt’s 2023 campaign donations for yourself here, retrieved from the NC State Board of Elections website.

July 2023:

Governor Cooper vetoes HB 618, noting in a statement that the law appears to violate the state constitution:

“The North Carolina Constitution clearly gives the State Board of Education the oversight authority for public schools, including charter schools. This bill is a legislative power grab that turns that responsibility over to a commission of political friends and extremists appointed by Republican legislators, making it more likely that faulty or failing charter schools will be allowed to operate and shortchange their students. Oversight of charter schools should be conducted by education experts not partisan politicians.”

August 2023:  

State lawmakers override Cooper’s veto and HB 618 becomes law.  Authority in approving or denying charter applications now rests with the Charter School Review Board.

September 2023:

The State Board of Education passes a new policy requiring charter schools to demonstrate their compliance with finance law before receiving state funds. 

Under this policy, the Charter School Review Board must submit details about school funding for charter schools seeking initial approval or renewal to the State Board.  The State Board will then review those documents before disbursing funds to the schools.

Despite having recused himself from discussion and voting on the American Leadership Academy Monroe matter in December 2022 and January 2023, Mark Robinson does NOT recuse himself this time and votes against the policy.

State Board members are reminded by the chair at the outset of each meeting that “it is [their] duty to avoid conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts of interest as we handle the work of the Board” and “to abstain from participating in discussion on the matter and from voting on the matter.”

Voting on a policy that could make it more difficult for the schools your wife helps lead to secure funding constitutes a clear conflict of interest, especially when you’ve recently received nearly $25,000 in campaign contributions from the people who run and profit financially from those schools.

October 2023:

WBTV reports that Lieutenant Governor Robinson failed to disclose on his 2023 ethics filing that his wife now sits on the boards of the three Charter One-managed American Leadership Academy schools.  Obviously the law requires that change to be disclosed on the mandatory annual Statement of Economic Interest.

October 17:  The newly empowered Charter School Review Board approves American Leadership Academy Monroe’s charter application.

Ten days pass with no appeal from Superintendent Truitt.  She may have been too busy counting her $12,800 to file one.

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It appears that Glenn Way is up to his old double dipping real estate tricks when it comes to American Leadership Academy Monroe.

The ALA Monroe charter application lists the landlord of the school’s “build to suit” lease as SH Monroe LLC and the individual landlord as one Scott Brand, with an email address at the domain schooldev.us.  SH seems likely to stand for “Schoolhouse,” and Glenn Way’s primary real estate development company is Arizona-based Schoolhouse Development LLC.  Schoolhouse Development’s website (schooldev.us) lists Way and Scott Brand as that company’s principals.  

SH Monroe LLC was registered in Utah in December 2018 and in North Carolina in January 2019.  The Utah listing displays only Scott Brand as agent, but the North Carolina LLC database shows that one of the company’s managers is none other than…Charter One founder Glenn Way.

Curiously, the same North Carolina LLC database which is housed on the NC Secretary of State’s website shows that Charter One Southeast, LLC had its license to transact business in the state of North Carolina revoked on February 28, 2023 for failure to file an annual report. 

It’s unclear how this company can continue to operate in our state without a license.

Unfortunately the saga above seems likely to repeat itself over and over in North Carolina. 

Republican state legislators have gerrymandered their way into a stranglehold on power for the foreseeable future.  Their policies have created a pathway for their rapacious out-of-state benefactors to sell our families a subpar product while filling their pockets with millions in North Carolina’s public tax dollars.

Contrary to what Charter One founder Glenn Way and, apparently, Mark Robinson, Catherine Truitt and all the other North Carolina elected officials who are facilitating this grift fest in our state believe, public education is not Walmart.  It is a constitutional right that can alter our students’ life trajectories and offer them wonderful opportunities if adequately funded.  

Regardless of how bleak North Carolina’s current political landscape appears, that’s something worth fighting for.

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