NC superintendent sought legal advice on charter school decision. But she won’t say who.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt is refusing to name the attorneys she consulted before deciding not to appeal the approval of a new charter school that had been previously rejected by the State Board of Education.

Last month, the newly empowered N.C. Charter Schools Review Board voted to approve American Leadership Academy-Monroe, reversing the state board’s earlier rejection. On Thursday, state board members questioned Truitt’s decision to seek the advice of private attorneys and to not appeal the approval.

“We’re entitled to know who it is that you the superintendent are relying on not to appeal a decision that was made that this board voted twice on,” said state board vice chair Alan Duncan.

Truitt said she wasn’t required to name the attorneys. Truitt also told Duncan that the state Department of Public Instruction did not pay for the legal advice.

“I have made a decision not to appeal,” Truitt answered Duncan. “I’ve shared in great detail why I have made that decision not to appeal, and what you’re requesting is not part of the way statutes read now.”

Truitt also declined a request Thursday from The News & Observer to name the attorneys.

Stae Superintendent Catherine Truitt speaks at a press conference on Sept. 16, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. She’s being questioned about her decision not to appeal the approval of a new charter school in Union County.
Stae Superintendent Catherine Truitt speaks at a press conference on Sept. 16, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. She’s being questioned about her decision not to appeal the approval of a new charter school in Union County.

School will be run by for-profit company

The State Board of Education had voted in December and January to reject the charter school application. The board raised concerns such as the financial control that Charter One, a for-profit Arizona based management organization, would have over the Union County school.

But in August, state lawmakers passed into law a bill that transfers the state board’s power to approve and close charter schools to the Review Board. Previously, it only had been an advisory board when it had recommended approval of the Union County charter school.

The new law also gave applicants such as American Leadership Academy-Monroe the option to appeal their state board rejection to the Review Board.

One of the provisions in the new law gives the state superintendent the ability to appeal the Review Board’s decisions to the state board. In an Oct. 30 memo, Truitt called the state board’s concerns about a for-profit company managing the school “philosophical differences of opinion not based on any law or statute.”

Truitt said there is “no basis in fact” to say it’s a conflict of interest for a profit-company to run a charter school.

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of for-profit companies serve public schools across our state and nation and make a profit while providing a great product for students,” Truitt wrote to state board members. “I would also argue that CMO (charter management organization) charters who do not have a for-profit company spending money on facilities and financial expertise are more likely to encounter issues that would lead to school closures.”

Private attorneys consulted in decision

In the email that accompanied the memo, Truitt told board members that she had “felt the need to consult attorneys who are experts in charter school law.”

“Who is the outside attorney that you apparently relied upon for providing the response that was given?” Duncan, the board vice chair, asked Truitt on Thursday.

Duncan also questioned Truitt about why she had not just relied on the state board’s legal counsel or staff in the state Department of Public Instruction.

“Our legal counsel, as wonderful as they are, are not experts in charter school law, and I would argue that no one on this board is an expert on charter school law,” Truitt responded. “And so I turned to outside counsel who are experts in the charter school law, and I’m happy to have that conversation with you offline.”

Truitt, a Republican, was backed by the state board’s GOP members. It was the appointees of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on the board who had rejected the school.

“It just seems peculiar to me that if the Review Board voted to approve a charter and whether it’s the superintendent or her representative who went along with that vote, why would we want to reverse that positive decision?” said state board member Olivia Oxendine.

But state board chair Eric Davis said there are multiple reasons why they would have wanted Truitt to appeal the Review Board’s approval.

“If we acted on a school and have concerns — documented concerns about governance, about conflict of interest and so forth — and those issues were not addressed, we still have those concerns,” Davis said. “And I think the question in terms of an appeal is why didn’t we get an opportunity to consider those concerns?”

Truitt says no connection to campaign donations

The new Union County charter school that’s set to open in 2024 is well connected.

Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s wife, Yolanda Hill, is on the school’s board of directors. Robinson recused himself on the state board’s votes on the school but he has an appointee on the Review Board.

Robinson and Truitt have both received thousands of dollars in campaign donations from employees of Charter One, which manages American Leadership Academy schools.

Truitt received $6,400 this year from Glenn Way, who founded both Charter One and American Leadership Academy. Way has made millions of dollars building, selling and leasing properties to the charter schools he runs in Arizona, The Arizona Republic has reported.

Way has told state officials that the Arizona Republic story overstated how much money was made by his companies.

Truitt said there’s no connection between the campaign donations and her decision not to appeal the school’s approval.

“I have never had a conversation about this matter with anyone at Charter One,” Truitt said in a statement Thursday to the N&O. “People and organizations have the right to regularly contribute to candidates whose beliefs align with their own.”