The Alabama Public Charter School Commission meets on Aug. 28, 2023 at LEAD Academy in Montgomery. (Jemma Stephenson/Alabama Reflector)
How does a commission become independent?
With a lot of paperwork.
Alabama legislators this spring approved a bill to make the Alabama Public Charter School Commission, currently under the direction of the Alabama State Department of Education, into its own entity. Now, the commission needs to work through its budget, staffing and legal services.
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“So, imagine being at work and all of a sudden, you are told, here’s a law change: ‘You need to go make your own department which was your little committee, now it becomes an agency for the state,’” said Luis Ferrer, chair of the commission.
The commission elected two of the three officers it needed at the Monday meeting, which caused some concern among new members of the commission appointed over the last several weeks.
“I’m concerned that we have elected two people already that some of us don’t know,” said Dorothy Huston.
Paul Morin, returning commissioner and newly elected vice-chair, said that he understood her concerns.
“You don’t know me from Adam’s house cat,” he said.
Beyond a number of new members, the commission had to work through new changes that came with becoming an independent body.
The commission operated in the past as a budget line item under the Alabama State Department of Education. This past legislative session, like previous legislative sessions, the commission was allocated $400,000.
“So we have to, how do I say this, play friendly in the sandbox with the state department and make sure that we’re getting, you know, what they will and will not do,” said Morin.
Logan Searcy, the Alabama State Department of Education’s liaison to the commission, said that the state would still provide support for the charter schools themselves. Searcy had worked with the commission when they were a part of the Department and now works with them as part of the memorandum of understanding they have with the Department during their offboarding.
The commission is now looking to hire an executive director and trying to budget for other expenses with $400,000 for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
“And that’s a good chunk of change every year,” Morin said.
Searcy also said that the commission’s lawyer has a $100,000 contract and costs around $50,000 a year.
“Unless we end up before the State Supreme Court again,” said Morin.
Lane Knight, current lawyer, said that October would be an important time for legal support because of renewals. He said he would support the commission through October.
The commission has also historically outsourced an independent review of some charter proceedings, such as renewals and applications, to the organization Cognia, an educational organization that provides certification.
The commission is also considering having their new staff member work from home and transitioning to a Zoom meeting commission to save money on office space and transportation reimbursement. Ferrer said after the meeting that they might hire an executive director with some of the skills that Cognia brought.
That staff member was included in the new law, which had come from conversations between the Department of Education and commission. But members of the commission are now uncertain how the person will be selected. Morin said that they had three options: appointment, job posting or state personnel.
“I can tell you from experience, because I work directly for the [DHR Commissioner Nancy Bucker], I have individuals that work underneath me that make far more money than I do, because I am constrained by the state registry, because that is just the way that it works in the state, and as my grandmother would say, you get what you pay for,” said Morin.
The commission Monday seemed to be leaning towards an appointment and trying to create a job description from those in other states. Tyler Barnett, CEO of New Schools for Alabama, sat in the audience. At the request of the commission, Barnett said he would send them some descriptions and added that he had sent them to Ty Moody, the former chair no longer on the board.
Morin and Ferrer also discussed their plan to visit the state comptroller later this week to work through exactly what they needed to do to meet their independence.
“They have to lay out what we have to do to be established as a state agency, like our IRS number, you know, down to the granular level of establishing ourselves,” Morin said.
After the meeting, Ferrer said that he does not believe that the changes will affect the charter school process. The commission voted Monday to keep the timeline the same for charter schools as years past.
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