Charter Oversight: Managing From Behind a Curtain

May 24, 2012 | By Thompson Education | Post a Comment

(This guest post was written by Nancy Connor and originally appeared on Thompson’s education blog, Title I-Derland.) Charter schools represent a growing concern to me because all of our 30+ charter schools are considered to be public schools under the umbrella of my district as the sponsoring LEA.  That means, of course, that we are responsible for their compliance with all of the federal funding they receive.   In the district “single audit” for the 2010-11 school year, three of the eight federal award findings were the result of non-compliance in charter schools.  None were significant enough to constitute material weaknesses, but they do raise a very large issue:  What is sufficient monitoring oversight  in schools that consider themselves largely independent of district practices and do not use our financial system?

Take something as simple as the suspensions and debarment check that is required of all contracts paid for with federal funds. (In case you don’t know, it must be verified that a contractor is not on the federal “do not do business with this one” list.)   In the district itself, we have a clearly defined control process to ensure that all contracts and purchase order requests are checked for this requirement. But what about the charter schools?  I have one staff person who deals with reimbursement requests from charter schools for their various federal funds, so should she be responsible for collecting all federally funded contracts from them to make sure that the vendor has been checked?  Or is it sufficient to simply accept an assurance from the charter school that the contracts have been checked?

How about inventory?  The federal charter school start-up grants are used to buy things like desks and chairs, computers, and books.  When the stuff arrives, it needs to be inventoried. Who keeps the records?   One charter school closed down this year, and a process had to be developed to collect and document the disposal of things paid for with the start-up grant.  We did have some sticky moments because the charter school was housed in the same building as a traditional school, and some of the things that had been bought were book cases that were affixed to the walls.

We collect receipts for every purchase made with federal dollars at each of the charter schools.  Most are Title I schools.  All receive Title II and Title III funds.  Some have federal turnaround grant funds, some have 21st Century Community School grants, the language immersion school has the Federal Language Assistance Program grant. This is a lot of receipts. (At the language school some of the receipts came in Mandarin…hard to analyze)  We collect payroll records, time and effort documentation, highly qualified teacher documentation…it goes on.  We have set up “dummy” accounts in our financial system for all of these grant budgets as a way for us to keep track of expenditures and reimbursement requests.  In spite of all of this, the district was slapped because a couple of receipts were missed on which sales tax had been paid (state law exempts purchases by public entities).  Allowability and alignment with approved programs are also difficult to manage.

So, I am throwing it out there.  Does anyone have a great system for oversight in charter schools?  I would love to discuss with you.

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