When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools unveiled plans for Olympic Highs new Advanced Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship school, the program looked familiar to creators of a prospective charter school.
In crucial ways, it replicated the plan filed in March to launch Entrepreneur High as a vocational charter school in southwest Charlotte, where Olympic sits. That was no coincidence.
After Entrepreneur got the states initial go-ahead in September, an Olympic staffer invited the charter founders to talk with CMS officials. CMS officials later acknowledged that they took from that meeting ideas for their own school, which they had just started to plan.
The charter leaders came to the meeting hoping for CMS support, including the use of a building. Thats when they learned that CMS was planning its own manufacturing school.
About two weeks later, the charter board learned in a letter from Superintendent Heath Morrison that CMS was incorporating their entrepreneurship theme as well. We salute you for your research and groundwork, Morrison wrote.
Depending on who you talk to, the episode illustrates the best or the worst way traditional school districts can react to the surge of charters in North Carolina. The charters, after all, are independent public schools that were created to spark innovation and fill gaps in traditional public education.
Some charter advocates say all kids benefit when districts respond to competition with improvements of their own. The Entrepreneur board member who shared ideas with CMS said hes glad the district embraced them. As far as I was concerned, mission accomplished, said human resources consultant Mike Horrigan.
Others cite the Olympic decision as a sign CMS is out to squelch competition. The real problem with our case is that the rivalry between CMS and a charter like ours hurts our students, said founder Hans Plotseneder, a retired CMS teacher who contends his European-style trade school can turn public-school failures into wage-earning adults. He said jealousy or competition is preventing CMS from offering a building or promising to refer potential dropouts to his school.
The tension between CMS and Entrepreneur is partly based on clashes among Plotseneder, Horrigan and other founders of the charter school. The board deadlocked over the schools future and voted to dissolve itself in October. Plotseneder is now moving ahead with newly recruited leadership, hoping for final approval from the N.C. Board of Education this week.
But the delicate dance of competition and cooperation is also a symptom of a changing educational landscape in North Carolina. Taxpayer dollars and the education of thousands of students are riding on state lawmakers growing investment in charter schools.
This year the state is spending $304.5 million on 127 charter schools that serve about 58,700 students. An additional 26 schools, including Entrepreneur, go before the state board Thursday for final approval to open in 2014, and the state is just starting to screen 71 applications for 2015.
Charlotte is the epicenter of North Carolina school choice and the challenges it brings. Eleven of the 26 schools up for final approval would serve Mecklenburg students and pull in about 2,750 students and $6.4 million in county money from CMS in their first year. All told, those 11 charters have budgeted for a first-year taxpayer investment of $22.6 million in state, federal, Mecklenburg and Cabarrus county money.
CMS, with 144,000 students and an annual budget topping $1.2 billion, looms large in the eyes of anyone launching a charter in the region.
One of the keys to state approval is making the case that a charter will provide something thats lacking in the district. Applicants tout their ability to help students who are failing in CMS, to relieve overcrowded schools and to provide academic extras students dont get in their neighborhood schools.
But many also seek CMS support. Finding a site is one of the biggest challenges for new charters. The closed Wilson Middle now houses StudentFirst Academy, a charter that opened in August; other charter boards have asked CMS about leasing vacant schools.
Morrison, hired in 2012, promotes fierce, but friendly, competition. He said high-quality charters benefit the entire community. He has hosted meetings with charter and private school leaders to seek common ground, and his leadership team visits successful charters to study their tactics.
But Morrison has also voiced concerns that North Carolinas rush to approve charters doesnt include enough oversight. He has sought permission for CMS to authorize its own charter schools to provide supervision and support while allowing flexibility. Current state laws dont allow that, and some charter operators see that proposal as a bid to encroach on their independence.
Morrison inherited a robust magnet program and immediately set out to beef it up, talking about making every school a school of choice. In December, the CMS board approved spending $3.7 million for a dozen new magnets and programs, including Olympics manufacturing and entrepreneurship school.
In many cases, CMS and charter boards are going head-to-head. For instance, CMS Morehead STEM Academy a magnet specializing in science, technology, engineering and math has hundreds of students on its waiting list every year. Three new CMS magnets and two new charters will offer that theme.
Maurice Jones, a founding board member of Entrepreneur High who is now pursuing his own charter for 2015, said the states screening process puts charters at a competitive disadvantage. He said CMS plagiarized the idea for Olympics new school.
I guess the old saying If CMS cant control it then they will kill it holds true, Jones said in an October email. He accused CMS of trying to cripple and suppress another start-up charter high school by pre-empting the plans.
Not so, said Valerie Truesdale, CMS top academic officer and the districts point person in the Entrepreneur High meetings. Officials are too busy with their own work to pore through charter applications, she said, and they dont seek to thwart new schools.
Charter proposals are reviewed by staff from the N.C. Office of Charter Schools and an advisory board before going to the Board of Education for approval. The system is designed to sort out applicants that have a strong educational vision, a viable business plan and the expertise to pull it off. It also means charter plans are public record for months before the schools open.
Plotseneders board first applied to open Entrepreneur High in April 2012, hoping for permission to open in 2013.
At that point, Plotseneder had been talking about the need for better vocational education for years. A native of Austria, Plotseneder said his time teaching in CMS high schools convinced him American teens need schools that teach practical skills. CMS, he said, is too wedded to a college-for-all approach. Many who fail are not dumb students. They just are not interested in fine literature or calculus.
Plotseneder ran for school board three times, talking about the need for European-style trade schools. After his third bid failed in 2011, Plotseneder sought like-minded people to create a charter school.
Some of his recruits including Horrigan and Hans Faulstich, a German-born business consultant came through the German business community.
The Entrepreneur application for 2013-14 didnt make the cut. Horrigan, a consultant who has worked with such German-owned manufacturers as Siemens and Bosch Rexroth, said he expanded the application for 2014-15. Thats when he highlighted the opportunities for the charter school to work with companies in southwest Charlotte. The plan calls for Entrepreneur to teach manufacturing, automotive and construction skills.
At the time, Olympic already had partnerships with several area businesses, and it was sending students to Bosch and Siemens for internships and training. But from what Horrigan could tell, CMS wasnt making a major bid to develop a program that would build skills for high-paying manufacturing jobs or teach students to run their own businesses.
The 2014-15 proposal got the go-ahead from the state advisory board in July and won preliminary approval from the Board of Education on Sept. 5.
Truesdale agrees that CMS wasnt working on an advanced manufacturing school when Entrepreneur filed its application in March, and that the Olympic plan emerged at about the same time she met with Horrigan. It was sort of a parallel conversation, she said.
Olympic is already divided into five small schools with career and academic themes. Truesdale said the idea for an advanced manufacturing school came from employers serving on an Olympic advisory board who urged CMS to create a stronger workforce training program. That discussion happened on Sept. 12, she said a week after Entrepreneur High got preliminary charter approval and a week before Truesdale and other CMS staff met with two Entrepreneur board members. At that point, Truesdale said CMS began planning to add an advanced manufacturing school in 2014-15.
Mike Realon, Olympic Highs career development coordinator, convened both meetings, according to Truesdale and Horrigan, one of the Entrepreneur board members in attendance. (Realon referred all questions to Truesdale.)
Horrigan said Realon told him he had heard about Entrepreneurs plans and realized there were similarities with what CMS was doing at Olympic. He invited Horrigan to meet with Truesdale to discuss their programs.
Horrigan, already at odds with Plotseneder over financing and potential locations for the charter school, said he saw CMS as a strong potential partner. A CMS building would solve the site dilemma.
On Sept. 19, Truesdale and a handful of other CMS staff met with Horrigan and Walter Harrison, a retired CMS educator serving on the Entrepreneur charter board. Horrigan and Truesdale both describe that meeting as cordial and productive.
Truesdale said she and other CMS officials were impressed by the way the Entrepreneur representatives made the case for teaching skills that would help students start a business. That was a big miss for us and was quickly added to the plans for Olympic, she added.
Truesdale then said she told the two Entrepreneur board members about CMS plan to create an advanced manufacturing school. They were very supportive, she said, and Horrigan even suggested additional companies that CMS might work with.
Horrigan said he remains convinced that Truesdale and CMS acted in good faith. Other board members saw it differently.
Strife among founders
Horrigan delivered Morrisons follow-up letter to the Entrepreneur board on Oct. 5.
This is to advise that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools intends to open an Advanced Manufacturing/Entrepreneurship High school (AME High) in 2014 as one of Olympic High Schools small schools, the letter concluded. We welcome partnerships and collaboration toward success in this new high school.
Plotseneder said he was perplexed by Morrisons message and its vague talk of collaboration. He said last week he wont speculate on the motives of CMS officials, but he believes Horrigan was trying to turn Entrepreneur High into a school within a school that would report to CMS. That would have undermined the charter schools independence, he said.
The Entrepreneur board was already under stress going into the Oct. 5 meeting. Three of the eight founding members had resigned previously, and the remaining five are deadlocked over site options. The CMS meeting and Morrisons response was just one more point of conflict, Horrigan and Plotseneder agree.
Plotseneder made a motion to dissolve the board, and it was approved 3-2. Horrigan thought that was the end of Entrepreneur High. Plotseneder and Faulstich saw it as a chance to appoint a board they could work with.
State charter officials, hearing of the turmoil, summoned the new board to Raleigh on Dec. 10 to field questions from the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board. Plotseneder brought packets that detailed what he described as an effort by a former board member to sell out EHS to CMS.
Both Horrigan and Truesdale said that presentation inaccurately represents their talks.
When the CMS board approved Olympics new program on Dec. 11, Bosch executives were there to announce an $80,000 donation to build a machine shop at Olympics new academy. The Advanced Manufacturing/Entrepreneurship school will be one of five academies available to students in the Olympic zone.
If you know what manufacturing means to any of the nations, it creates a lot of good-paying jobs for honest work, said Berend Bracht, president of Bosch Rexroth Americas.
Plotseneder said Entrepreneur High is still searching for a home; it is looking at sites in east and west Charlotte.
He said the CMS move doesnt kill the prospects for his school, though it does force him to search for business partners outside the southwest area highlighted in the application. Hes now talking with manufacturers as far afield as Monroe to line up on-the-job training.
The Entrepreneur board has been meeting with students and families, with 60 already expressing interest, Plotseneder said. He said he expects no trouble filling the proposed 180 first-year seats.
On Dec. 12, two days after telling state officials about the sellout drama, Plotseneder met with Truesdale for the first time. He asked her to have CMS counselors refer potential dropouts to Entrepreneur High but got little encouragement.
Truesdale said CMS isnt willing to write off students as unfit for CMS or college education. We are preparing all of our students for careers, she said. College is very likely to be on the way to a career.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms