Students and teachers arrived last Oct. 20 at their Scottsdale charter school ready for classes, but instead they found the doors padlocked and signs posted outside announcing the school’s closure.
The Kachina Country Day School board of directors had voted days earlier to close the fledging Scottsdale campus and continue operating only its Paradise Valley site. But families affiliated with the Scottsdale campus missed the vote because the board did not mention the item on its public agenda circulated before the meeting.
"Otherwise, we wouldn’t have showed up at school with our kid ready to go to class," Scottsdale parent Sandy Wakeham said. "I’m totally disappointed. I was thinking of getting a better education for my daughter, not worse."
The unscheduled vote sparked parent complaints to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which launched an investigation into possible violations of Arizona’s Open Meetings Law. In a formal opinion issued in 1995, the attorney general said the Open Meetings Law applies to charter schools the same as district schools and other political subdivisions of the state.
The attorney general issued a formal letter of concern Dec. 18 that said Kachina’s board of directors had "repeatedly violated multiple sections of Arizona’s Open Meetings Law." The letter asked Kachina to submit a proposal "to rectify the violations."
Chris Kline, operator of the Kachina schools, said he has "cooperated in every way" with the state since then — and the governing board now posts specific agendas before every meeting.
"People aren’t always abreast, and I wasn’t fully abreast, of all the intricacies of Open Meetings Law," he said.
Other charter school operators in the East Valley said they recognize the need to conduct business openly and take steps to avoid the type of trouble that Kachina faced.
Most charter schools appoint or elect three to seven board members — either from the community or from the private corporations that own them — and hold monthly or occasional meetings.
In training they receive from the attorney general’s office when they apply for their charters, they learn that they must post agendas at least 24 hours in advance at a location reported to the Secretary of State’s Office. Agendas must describe meeting topics with enough specificity that residents interested in the topic will know to attend, and afterward the board must publish minutes.
"You should be able to walk into any charter school and say, ‘Let me see your open meeting book,’ " said Sue Douglas, an administrator at Mesa Arts Academy, a charter school.
Daniel Scoggin, head of school at Tempe Preparatory Academy, another charter, said compliance is simply a condition that comes with operating a public school at taxpayer expense.
"Any good business that is a public business should be open and accessible," he said.
But Eddie Farnsworth, who operates Benjamin Franklin Charter School campuses in Gilbert, Queen Creek and Mesa, disagrees with the attorney general’s opinion on the open meeting requirement. Farnsworth said his schools comply with Arizona’s Open Meetings Law only because he does not want an expensive fight with the state.
In most cases charter schools are private companies that have received government contracts to provide public education, Farnsworth said. They work with the state the same as any other private contractor who provides a public service — such as doctors who provide public health care, developers who build public roads, or traffic safety companies that operate photo radar systems for police departments. And, he said, all of these groups receive tax money without any requirement to hold public meetings.