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Nevada charter authority board says executive kept them in dark

Updated December 3, 2018 - 11:31 pm

Members of the State Public Charter School Authority board say they were kept in the dark by the agency’s executive director about its operations, providing further insight into tensions that might have contributed to his resignation.

Board Chairman Jason Guinasso said that authority Executive Director Patrick Gavin failed to communicate with the board in a regard to a number of concerns raised by legislators at an Oct. 24 meeting of the Interim Finance Committee.

The list of concerns included the fact that authority staff were not conducting evaluative site visits to state charter schools — despite the Legislature’s approval of four new positions in 2017 to help with the workload. The matter came to light after an authority staffer stated that schools were going to determine how they would be evaluated.

As a result, according to the response approved Friday by the authority board, the legislators were left with the impression that the authority had “gone rogue and was failing to provide proper oversight to the schools.”

The staffer also “inexplicably blamed” the board for failing to conduct site visits, it said.

In fact, the letter said, the board was “never informed that staff was not doing ‘site visits’ … and has not reviewed or approved a ‘site visit protocol.’” It also denied that the schools would determine how they would be evaluated.

While clarifying a number of other statements made in the presentation, the letter also assured legislators that the authority will take immediate steps to address their concerns.

“Whether we had knowledge of what was communicated to the (Interim Finance Committee) or not does not absolve us from being accountable … regarding the work the authority is doing with the public money provided to fund key positions to get the work done,” it said.

Politics at play?

Meanwhile, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers is pushing back against a letter sent last week by a political rival asking the Nevada attorney general’s office to investigate whether Gavin violated state law.

The letter from the National Coalition for Public School Choice, which lobbies on behalf of online charter schools, said Gavin’s membership and “extensive participation” with the authorizers association was improper.

It noted that he was nominated to the NACSA board while participating in the selection of a vendor contract for business consulting services, which the authority awarded to the NACSA in 2015.

State law requires the executive director of the authority to seek permission from board members before pursuing any other business or occupation.

The NACSA, a membership organization that provides guidance and best practices for state groups that authorize charter schools, said in a statement that the letter contains multiple errors and misrepresentations.

Minutes from an April 2013 meeting of Nevada’s charter authority board also show that members supported the executive director — Steve Canavero, now the state’s superintendent of public education — serving on the NACSA board.

“That membership help(s) all Nevada charter schools keep up to date on model charter law and national best practices,” Chairwoman Kathleen Conaboy said at the time.

It’s unclear whether Gavin also sought approval from the authority board. Guinasso, who was not on the board during Canavero’s tenure at the charter authority, told the Review-Journal last week that he was unaware of Gavin’s NACSA role.

Gavin declined to comment for this story.

But one former authority board member, Elissa Wahl, said members approved both Canavero and Gavin’s involvement with the NACSA.

Others who served on the authority at the time — Conaboy, current member Nora Luna and current vice chair Melissa Mackedon — declined to comment on the letter or other internal issues. Former member Adam Johnson did not return a call for comment.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said it received the letter, but did not confirm whether it will investigate the matter.

Lobbyist for online charters

The PSO is a well-known lobbyist for online schools. It spent over $2 million in 2016 as part of its work “educating policymakers about the need for expanded access to school choice options,” according to the nonprofit’s 2016 IRS filing.

The group says it works to ensure parents’ right to choose the educational option that’s best for their children.

“That’s our mission and we will never back down from that,” PSO spokeswoman Susan Hepworth said in a statement. “When people get caught in unethical and potentially illegal behavior they try to distract, and this is a perfect example.”

The PSO letter to the attorney general’s office came three days before the authority was to consider whether to renew the embattled Nevada Virtual Academy’s middle and high school programs.

But Hepworth said the letter wasn’t timed to boost the school’s chances of renewal or coordinated with the school.

The president of the school’s board of directors also said it did not coordinate with the PSO on the effort.

The online academy, which agreed to close its elementary grades due to poor academics, has had a rocky history with the authority over underperformance. The authority approved its operations renewal with stipulations, requiring the middle or high school to close if they earn less than 50 points on the state’s academic performance system for two consecutive years.

The school pushed back on those conditions, arguing that they were unreasonable and excessive.

Contact Amelia Pak-Harvey at apak-harvey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4630. Follow @AmeliaPakHarvey on Twitter.

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