Milwaukee City Charter Rocketship “Bleeding Money” to Tune of Two Million Dollars

MMAC President Tim Sheehy at the grand opening of Rocketship in Milwaukee.

MMAC President Tim Sheehy, who according to Rocketship’s website, sits on the charters board of directors.

According to testimony from Carl Cira of M. L. Tharps & Associates, an auditor contracted by the City of Milwaukee, the private charter school Rocketship Southside Community Prep is running a massive deficit. Cira delivered this shocking financial report on Rocketship to the May 25th Charter School Review Committee (CSRC) meeting at City Hall. A recently completed financial audit revealed the charter is running a cumulative deficit of $1.4 million and a projected deficit of an additional $700,000 through the 2016-17 school year.

Cira’s testimony on Rocketship’s financial situation started with his reflecting, “Rocketship: A school I have some concerns about, because, they’re bleeding money, that would be my honest assessment.” CSRC member Joyce Mallory interrupted, “Who lets them pass a budget, with that kind of a deficit?”

Sadly the answer is the CSRC and the City. This financial malfeasance would not be possible in a traditional locally controlled public school accountable to a democratically elected school board, but it seems to happen all the time in the City’s private charter school district. This new revelation comes on top of financial problems already documented at City charter schools including at North Point Lighthouse Academy earlier this year.  Now Rocketship has emerged as the latest example of what happens when public dollars go to these unaccountable charter schools.  Watch video of the CSRC interaction below.

Like Lighthouse, Rocketship in Milwaukee is a franchise – part of a national charter school chain. Although franchisees claim that their parent company will bail them out when deficits occur, that was not the case with Lighthouse.

According to Cira, Rocketship claims its enrollment will increase next year to a point that will make the deficit disappear by the end of the 2016-17 schools year. But that claim doesn’t appear to be realistic. When it opened in 2013, its goal was to enroll 650 students. It started 2014-15 with 435 students. By June the number was 393. Its current enrollment is 420 students. Rocketship’s stated goal was to open eight K-5 schools in Milwaukee by 2017, serving up to 5,000 students. That goal has been drastically scaled back.

City of Milwaukee Charter Rocketship “Bleeding Money” to Tune of Two Million Dollars from MTEA Union on Vimeo.

What’s the Difference Between a Voucher, Charter, and Public School?

What's-the-Difference-
The more the people of Milwaukee find out about the Takeover of MPS, the more concerns and questions they have. One question keeps being asked is: What’s the difference between a voucher, charter, and public school? This non-partisan report was published in 2012, and although some of the numbers have changed since 2012, it should help answer many of these questions for people.

Originally published in May 2012 by the non-partisan Democracy and Education Research Group.
Overview
In recent decades, there has been an expansion of the types of schools in Milwaukee receiving public tax dollars. In some areas, differences may seem slight. In other areas, there are significant differences. This is especially true in terms of students’ rights, public accountability, and democratic oversight.
There are three main types of schools in Milwaukee that receive public tax dollars:
Private voucher schools, charging tuition but also open to students who receive publicly funded vouchers.
Charter schools approved by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (aka 2R)
• Schools overseen by the Milwaukee Public Schools district.
The voucher schools, by definition, are private schools and do not have to follow the same rules as public schools. Most provide religious-based education and may charge tuition to private-paying students and, in some cases, to high school students receiving vouchers.
The charter schools approved by the City of Milwaukee and the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee are considered public schools, but do not have to follow the same state rules, regulations and public oversight as traditional public schools. They are beholden to a “contract” (or charter), granted significant autonomy, and operate as independent entities. The schools are expected to provide greater academic results and innovation, although this has not necessarily happened in practice. Like all charter schools, they are non-religious and may not charge tuition. They are governed by privately appointed boards of directors.
The MPS district primarily oversees traditional public schools, including both neighborhood schools and a range of specialty schools and citywide schools, from language immersion to Montessori. The Milwaukee School Board also oversees charter schools that are part of the MPS but that have a specific “contract” or charter, often to provide a particular curricular focus. Finally, MPS oversees alternative and partnership schools. All MPS schools are non-religious and may not charge tuition. They are governed by the democratically elected Milwaukee School Board. Most MPS schools also have school based councils of parents, teachers and community members.

Details
Voucher schools
The biggest difference between voucher schools and charter and traditional schools is that, by definition, voucher schools are private schools and can provide religious-based instruction. There are approximately 22,300 students in Milwaukee receiving vouchers in the 2011-12 school year, mostly at religious schools. In 2011, for the first time Milwaukee students could attend a voucher school located outside the city.
While the voucher program initially began as an experiment promoting “choice” for poor people, a family of four with an income of $67,050 may now receive vouchers. The median family income in Milwaukee is $35,921.

Travis Academy was a voucher school in Milwaukee that was only recently shut down.

Travis Academy was a voucher school in Milwaukee that was only recently shut down.

Because they are private schools, voucher schools have limited public accountability and operate under different rules than public schools. For instance, voucher schools do not have to follow the state’s open meetings and records law. They do not have to provide information on staff qualifications, student suspensions and expulsions, graduation rates, and so forth to the public. Their meetings are not open to the public.

Voucher schools must accept students who require special education services, but they are not required to meet the students’ needs beyond what can be provided with minor adjustments. As a result, many students requiring special services leave voucher schools and attend a Milwaukee public schools. (Less than 2 percent of students in voucher schools are identified as receiving special education services, compared to about almost 20 percent in the Milwaukee Public Schools.)

In 2014, the state moved to terminate an underperforming private school from the Milwaukee voucher program that had operated for almost four years without accreditation — and received more than $1 million in taxpayer money during that time.

In 2014, the state moved to terminate an underperforming private school from the Milwaukee voucher program that had operated for almost four years without accreditation — and received more than $1 million in taxpayer money during that time.

As private schools, voucher schools do not have to honor constitutional rights of due process when students are suspended or expelled. Nor do private voucher schools have to follow Wisconsin law that prohibits discrimination against students in a range of areas including, sex, pregnancy, marital or parental status, or sexual orientation. Voucher schools, however, must follow federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.


Charter schools overseen by the City of Milwaukee and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Math & Science Academy has has several affiliates recently raided by the F.B.I.

The city of Milwaukee 2R City Charter Milwaukee Math & Science Academy has has several affiliates recently raided by the F.B.I.

There are seven schools chartered by the City of Milwaukee and 11 schools chartered by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The schools enrolled a total of approximately 6,500 students in 2011-12. Information on the UWM charter schools can be found on the webpage of the Office of Charter Schools at UWM. Links on the website provide data such as the name of a particular charter school, its address, when it was chartered, and its email and school website. Detailed data on special education students, racial makeup, curricular offerings and so forth is not easily accessible via the website. A 62-page annual report from 2009-10 is available through the website. The report does not indicate who appoints the staff and leadership overseeing the Office of Charter Schools, nor when and if the office holds meetings open to the public.

Milwaukee Collegiate Academy is a 2R city of Milwaukee charter school. It operates outside the Milwaukee School Board and is instead accountable to a appointed board.

Milwaukee Collegiate Academy is a 2R city of Milwaukee charter school. It operates outside the Milwaukee School Board and is instead accountable to a appointed board.

The only data available on the City of Milwaukee website specifically regarding charter schools is a phone number where one can get an application to become a charter school. The charter schools are overseen by a “Charter School Review Committee” appointed by city officials. Meetings and decisions by the committee are not available on the City of Milwaukee website, nor is it clear where one can attain such information. (The city has made some recent changes to provide more of this information to the public).

Limited data on individual charter schools, both for UWM and the City of Milwaukee, is available through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, but not for the schools as a group.

Milwaukee Public Schools
There are 175 schools within MPS in 2011-12, with 80,098 students. Schools include traditional schools, charter schools, and partnership schools. Charter schools include both district-run charters (instrumentality) and independent charters (non-instrumentality).
MPS Accepts All KidsInformation on schools, programs, enrollment and demographics can be found at the MPS website. MPS is governed by a nine-member School Board, which each member elected to a four-year term in public elections. The board holds monthly public meetings, in addition to committee meetings, open to the public. The Milwaukee Public Schools is the city’s largest educational institution, and the only one with the commitment, capacity, and legal obligation to serve the needs of all the city’s children.
Overall, almost 20 percent of MPS students require special education services, and 10 percent are English Language Learners. The district offers Spanish/English bilingual programs at 24 schools, and Southeast Asian/English Bilingual Programs at two schools. English-as-a-Second Language programs are available at the bilingual schools and an additional 14 schools.
MPS issues an annual Report Card for the district as a whole, and for individual schools. The reports cards are available publicly via the MPS website. Contact information for the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, agendas, meeting calendars and audio records of board proceedings are available at the MPS board governance website.
Wisconsin-Constitution copy