Connecticut TFA Director wants to open a charter school…in Bridgeport

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Yup, the Connecticut Director of Teach for America has submitted an application to open a charter school in Bridgeport.

Nate Snow arrived in Bridgeport in 2007 as a new TFA recruit.

Today he serves as the Executive Director for the Connecticut Chapter of Teach for America and President of the Board of Directors of Excel Bridgeport, Inc., a corporate funded education reform organization that he co-founded with Meghan Lowney, an aide to billionaire, hedge fund owner Steven Mandel.

Excel Bridgeport serves as the primary advocacy group supporting Governor Malloy, Mayor Bill Finch and “Superintendent of Schools” Paul Vallas’ education reform policies.

After graduating from Texas A&M University, Snow joined TFA and taught for two years in Bridgeport.  He then joined TFA’s fundraising operation and then made an unsuccessful bid as a Republican candidate for the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Snow and Vallas recently signed a three-year contract between the Bridgeport Board of Education and Teach for America for $777,000, although the contract was never provided to the Board for their review and approval.  Team Vallas is claiming he has the authority to sign the contract without Board involvement.

And meanwhile, despite having no experience in school administration, Snow is the lead name on a charter school application that is pending before Paul Vallas and the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Snow’s proposal is to create a Montessori Charter School for children between the ages of three and thirteen.

As to Snow’s connection to TFA and Excel Bridgeport, a recent CT Post article reported that “The charter school idea, he said, is his own.”

According to their proposal, “Whittier’s Montessori program is inspired by the design and implementation of Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet School (AFMMS), a high-performing public Montessori school in Hartford, Connecticut. Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet School has distinguished itself by meeting high standards of student achievement through a meticulous, fully implemented Montessori program.”

Stephen Adamowski, who according to emails acquired through a Freedom of Information request, worked with Snow around Malloy’s education reform bill, was a strong proponent of Hartford’s Montessori school and now, as Malloy’s Special Master for Windham and New London has been working hard to get Windham to switch one of its elementary schools over to a Montessori school.

In the new Montessori charter school application, the proponents explain how they developed the plan saying, “Prior to preparing for this submission, none of the founders had worked with a Montessori school, but they knew that it was a good brand with an excellent reputation. Starting with a visit to the acclaimed Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet School in Hartford, then undertaking conversations with parents who have children in private Montessori school in Fairfield County, and ending with informal consultations with Montessori leaders from around the country, the Founding members became convinced that Montessori should be an option for all children in Bridgeport. Nate Snow contacted the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector (NCMPS), located in Hartford, for further information on what was necessary to start a public Montessori school. These discussions led to an eventual contract with NCMPS to assist in school design and to aid in writing the charter application.”

The charter school proposal aims to start with 69 students next fall and reach 209 students in its fifth year.  Their budget calls for expending $1.7 million in year one and at least $3.8 million in year five.

While state charter schools get their money primarily from a state grant, Snow and his colleagues are trying to open a “local” charter school, meaning the funds would come mostly from Bridgeport’s school budget, with an extra $3,000 per student coming from a new state “local charter grant” that was part of Malloy’s education reform law.  Malloy’s education reform law also included a series of $500,000 “start-up grants” that charter schools could get from the state.  Snow and company are counting on getting one of those grants, as well.

In addition, the cost of transportation and special education costs would be paid for by the Bridgeport Board of Education.

Bridgeport is already well into the 60 day local charter review process.  The application, if approved, would then go to Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and the state Board of Education.

As to the various players behind the proposal, Wait What? readers may recall that starting in January 2011, Meghan Lowney, Nate Snow and Excel Bridgeport worked to persuade the Connecticut State Board of Education to take over the Bridgeport School System.  Over the course of the six months leading up to the State Board of Education’s illegal takeover, Lowney, Snow and Excel Bridgeport engaged in numerous communications with state officials.

Despite their ongoing lobbying, both before and during the illegal takeover and throughout the effort to persuade legislators to support Malloy’s education reform bill, neither Lowney, Snow nor Excel Bridgeport registered to lobby with the Connecticut Office of State Ethics, as required by law.

More than two weeks after the end of the 2012 Legislative session, Excel Bridgeport finally filed the required papers, listing Jorge Cabrera as the organization’s lead lobbyist.

Excel Bridgeport, a group initially called the Bridgeport Partnership for School Success, Inc., was created in December 2010 and then changed its name to Excel Bridgeport Inc. in September 2011.

According to its incorporation papers, Meghan Lowney, the Executive Director of the Zoom Foundation, (the personal foundation of Fairfield County billionaire Stephen Mandel), was registered as Excel Bridgeport, Inc.’s founding president and Nathan Snow, the Executive Director of Connecticut’s Teach for America Chapter served as the organization’s founding vice president.

Snow then took over the role as Excel’s president.   A board was also created made up of Jonathan Hayes (Executive, Meetinghouse Productions), Joel Green (Partner, Green & Gross, PC), Robert Francis (Executive Director, RYASAP), Carl Horton, Jr. (Consultant, Accenture), Scott Hughes (City Librarian, Bridgeport Public Library), Meghan Lowney (Executive Director, ZOOM Foundation) and Joseph McGee (Vice President, Fairfield County Business Council).  Like Snow, Francis, the Executive Director of RYASAP, also has a contract with the Bridgeport Board of Education.

As of now, Lowney and Snow have still not registered to lobby despite their ongoing efforts to influence public policy.

Meanwhile, faced with inadequate state resources, and Mayor Finch’s need to come up with $3.2 million more just to meet the state’s minimum local expenditure law, it will be interesting to see if Paul Vallas, the Bridgeport Board of Education and Commissioner Stefan Pryor divert dollars to their colleague Nate Snow and his proposal for a new Montessori charter school.

One Adam-12, One Adam-12, we have a COI in progress

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COI as in Conflict of Interest…

(Written by Jonathan Pelto and Wendy Lecker)

Yesterday, the Connecticut State Department of Education held an eight-hour training session for elected officials, administrators and parents associated with the “turnaround” schools that make up the Commissioner’s Network.

Among various education reformers, the “training event” featured none other than the Jumoke Academy’s CEO Michael Sharpe and COO Andrea Comer.  They explained the theory and practice behind the corporate education reform’s successful privatization movement.  Not only does Jumoke Academy collect millions of taxpayer dollars as a result of their Hartford-based charter school, but they are now collecting a state-funded management fee of $345,000 a year to run “The Jumoke Academy at Milner,” the former Hartford elementary school that was given to Jumoke as part of the Commissioner’s Network.

Flush with public funds, this private non-profit corporation has even started a new charter school management company called FUSE, Inc.

Tomorrow, the Connecticut House of Representatives may take up House Joint Resolution No. 75. , A resolution confirming Governor Malloy’s nomination of ANDREA COMER (Jumoke’s COO) to serve as a member of the State board of Education.

Is it a conflict of interest for the COO of a charter school company to sit on the State Board of Education where she will vote on a variety of measures that will directly help Jumoke and other charter schools in the state?  Not in Malloy’s mind.

Under Connecticut law, it would be conflict if she was President or Senior Vice President or Treasurer of Jumoke, but because the law doesn’t specifically use the term Chief Operating Officer, the Office of State Ethics says there is no legal conflict.

But of course there is a conflict of interest.

As Wait, What? readers learned in a recent post entitled Malloy nominates charter school corporate officer to Connecticut State Board of Education, Andrea Comer worked for Charter School Management company, Achievement First, Inc., a company co-founded by Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, from  2009 to 2011 and started with Fuse/Jumoke Academy  in 2012.

Just a few weeks ago, Comer came before the legislature’s Appropriations Committee saying that she was representing “Jumoke Academy and its charter management organization FUSE, as its Chief Operating Officer…”

As a member of the State Board of Education, Comer will be voting on a wide variety of issues directly and indirectly affecting the profitability of the company she works for and Connecticut’s other charter schools.

Her boss, Michael Sharpe is not only the CEO of Jumoke Academy but has served as the President of the Connecticut Charter School Network, one of the organizations that is registered to lobby for charter schools.

Comer claims she has no conflict of interest despite the fact that she will be voting to review and reauthorize Jumoke’s Charter, review and vote on issues relating to the Jumoke Academy at Milner, review and vote on any requests by Jumoke Academy to expand, and vote on all regulations and funding decisions for Connecticut’s charter schools.

And those conflicts will occur on a continuous basis.

Just the other day, Jumoke’s Michael Sharpe was testifying before the General Assembly.  In a response to a question about how things were going with Jumoke’s takeover of the Milner School, he let slip a most interesting comment.  Sharpe said, “We’re actually extending it a little bit further in that Jumoke Academy has committed to working with the City of Hartford and possibly taking over schools like Milner School in a fee structure that allows us to help the City and the City also help our bottom line.”

Be sure to check back, because in the coming days we’ll be learning more about this secret deal between Sharpe, Jumoke and some officials within the City of Hartford.

These deals may very well have to go before the State Board of Education for approval where education reformers like Governor Malloy and Commissioner Pryor will count on the support of the newest member of the State Board of Education, who also just happens to be Fuse/Jumoke’s Chief Operating Officer.

Every day it becomes more and more apparent that Governor Malloy’s definition of following the law doesn’t actually include following the “spirit” of that law.

It will be interesting to see if any legislators are willing to stand up and speak out against Malloy’s nomination of Andrea Comer for a seat on the State Board of Education.

Connecticut’s House Republicans step forward to protect open, fair and accountable government

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If you found that hard to read, imagine how hard it was to write…

But it is true.

Last week, the leader of the House Republicans blasted Governor Malloy’s plan to undermine Connecticut’s watchdog agencies.

Representative Cafero observed that Governor Malloy’s budget proposal is, “…an attempt to undermine the public’s right to know what is going on within government.” 

Cafero added, “Investigations into campaign finance fraud, ethics complaints and Freedom of Information challenges will fall by the wayside if this proposal goes forward.’’  

While Democratic leaders remained silent or tip-toed around the issue, the House Republicans stepped forward to speak the truth.

The independence of Connecticut’s watchdog and good government entities is under assault.

What are these good government entities?

In 1974, following the Watergate scandal, the Connecticut General Assembly created the State Elections Commission (Public Act 74-213) to “ensure the integrity of the state’s electoral process.”

In 1975, Connecticut passed one of the most far-reaching Freedom of Information Acts in the nation and created the Freedom of Information Commission (Public Act 75-342) to “ensure citizen access to the records and meetings of public agencies in the State of Connecticut.”

And in 1977, the General Assembly formed the Connecticut State Ethics Commission (Public Act 77-600) to “promote the highest ethical standards and accountability in state government by providing education and legal advice, ensuring disclosure, and impartially enforcing the Codes of Ethics.”

In each case, the commissions and offices were set up to be bi-partisan or non-partisan entities, independent of any inappropriate political influence from the administrative or legislative branches of government.  The laws were designed to protect each entity’s fundamental mission to oversee Connecticut’s campaign finance laws, Connecticut’s freedom of information laws and Connecticut’s ethics laws.

Over the years, although Connecticut’s laws were already some of the strongest in the country, state government expanded and strengthened its good government statutes even more, further ensuring open and fair elections and government. 

In 2005, Connecticut adopted a Citizens’ Election Program, considered the “most sweeping public campaign finance program in the country. “

Then, in 2011, Governor Malloy proposed merging the government watchdog agencies into a single entity called the Office of Governmental Accountability.

While the Connecticut General Assembly revised Malloy’s original proposal to allow the various watchdog entities to retain some independence, the legislation, (Public Act 11-48) created the position of Executive Administrator, a position appointed by the governor.  The job of the Executive Administrator was to “provide consolidated personnel, payroll, affirmative action, and administrative and business office function.”

In this way, the Office of the Governor was given far greater reach into the day-to-day operations of the independent, government watchdog agencies.

However, as the Office of Governmental Accountability’s website notes, even today, each entity within the Office of Governmental Accountability “retains its independent decision-making authority, including for budgetary and employment decisions.”

But just a couple of weeks  ago, as part of his proposed state budget, Governor Malloy and his OPM Secretary, Ben Barnes, proposed doing way with that independent budget and employment decision-making authority.

As Representative Cafero explained, “All these watchdogs we rely on to ensure the rights of individuals and root out government fraud and mismanagement would fall under authority of an appointee of the governor. We will be losing any autonomy in these units.’’

Considering Connecticut’s long standing commitment to good government and independent watchdog agencies, the Governor’s decision to make this unprecedented power grab is beyond belief.

But that is exactly what Governor Malloy has done…

And to date, only the Republican legislators have stood up to say they will fight to put an end to Malloy’s proposal.

Malloy says: I know, let’s finish off the effectiveness of the government watchdog agencies…

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In his first budget, Governor Malloy went a long way toward undermining the effectiveness of Connecticut’s landmark Freedom of Information Commission, Office of State Ethics, State Elections Enforcement Commission and Connecticut’s other watch dog and good government agencies by merging them into a single agency, reducing their resources and giving financial control to a political appointee.

Although he somehow forgot to mention it during his speech last week, Malloy’s new state budget plan takes another giant leap forward in his effort to destroy Connecticut’s once stellar standing as having one of the best good government programs in the nation.

The CTMirror has the details in an article entitled “Howls as Malloy tries to shorten leash on watchdogs,” but the quote of the day goes to Malloy’s Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, Ben Barnes, who says of the proposal to destroy the remaining independence of the watchdog agencies, “There is nothing insidious about this.”

As quoted in the CTMirror article, James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information explains, “These proposals can only be explained as an effort to gain control over the guarantors of transparency and integrity in government…We ask why the Malloy administration is determined to emasculate the independent watchdogs?”

As the CTMirror explains, “Malloy’s plan would give a gubernatorial appointee, the executive director of the Office of Government Accountability, the authority to assign and discipline lawyers whose duties could include investigating Malloy or some future governor.”

The CTMirror summarizes the situation noting, “The change would remove a layer of political insulation that protects the agencies and the governor: The watchdogs are free of executive influence, real or perceived; and the governor’s office is protected against accusations of protecting friends or punishing enemies.”

Imagine what the Democrats would be saying if a Republican governor made such an outrageous proposal.

I bet if we listen carefully, we can hear John Rowland laughing…