Keeping an eye on who is opening schools

Posted at 11:36 PM, May 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-19 06:53:47-04

The Department of Education says the State of Michigan spends about $1.1 billion a year on charter schools. 

The idea is to create choice, competition, and better schools. 

But is that always happening?  Who is opening these schools?  One school district superintendent says he fears no one without bias is really watching.

This story  started when a man walked into a Ferndale school.

“He was snooping around, asking about our school,” said Blake Prewitt, Superintendent of Ferndale Schools.

Finally, a staff member asked the man why he had so many questions. The answer?

"We’re opening a charter, right literally across the street,” said Prewitt.

Superintendent Blake Prewitt wanted to know more about the school, VAST Academy, expected to open come fall at a vacant school building in Royal Oak Township. Would it offer the same programs as his schools, impacting enrollment, funding and ultimately his plans?

He says he looked up the man who came to his school, and was shocked.

“Find me something in this man’s background that says he has done something to help kids succeed,” said Prewitt. “I personally can’t find it.”

Charter schools in Michigan need a sponsor or authorizer to open and receive state dollars for their student’s tuition. Most of the time the authorizer is a college that agrees to oversee the school.  

An application submitted by VAST Academy asking Saginaw Vally State University to authorize the school says Michael Bartley is the planned superintendent. While listing his qualifications it says he is the co-founder of the Metropolitan Transitional Academy in Inkster. It doesn’t say the school failed, only lasting 8 months in 2003.

“And he is going to run an online high school?” said Ferndale Superintendent Prewitt.

It says Bartley is a provider of educational services in Florida. The application however doesn’t share that the Tampa Bay Times reported Florida investigated numerous complaints about his company Computer Ed.

“Employees talking about being asked to falsify records to get money,” said Prewitt.

Now Bartley is named in a plan to run a school funded by your tax dollars.

That’s not all. Detroit Police shared with us his mug shot. It was taken after he was arrested for fleeing police in 2007.

I went to work to find Mr. Bartley to get his side of the story. His business address turned out to be a UPS box.  Seven Action News did get a hold of him by phone. He didn’t answer questions. He told 7 Action News we should get his side from the governing body or school’s board chair. When asked for contact information, he said they don’t exist because the school isn’t yet open.

Seven Action News managed to speak to the woman who submitted the plan for the school to Saginaw Valley State, the charter applicant Regina Solomon. She left her address blank on the form. Turns out she lives in Nevada.

When asked about Bartley’s qualifications to be superintendent she said, "I want people to know he isn’t the applicant. He isn’t on the board,” said Solomon.

Seven Action News that has nothing to do with whether he should be superintendent, as he is lined up to be in the plan. Her answer?

“Nobody can be lined up to be anything,” said Solomon.

The fact is her application names him as the planned superintendent. So why would she suggest he be the superintendent at her planned school?

Turns out, while she says they aren’t anymore, they were married. The Las Vegas Sun reports a plan to open a charter school fell apart because she and Micheal Bartley failed to disclose they were married at the time.

Seven Action News found she  has her own a history. She was banned from practicing law for a time after the Michigan Bar said she stole government property.

Back to VAST Academy, Saginaw Valley State was expected to approve the school, until the Superintendent of Ferndale schools forwarded on some of this background information. Now, a vote has been delayed.

“We're a positive group of people who set out to do something good and now we have a superintendent set out to destroy the reputations of those people,” said Regina Solomon. 

She implied Ferndale is trying to shut down competition.

Ferndale Superintendent Blake Prewitt says it is about doing what is right for kids in Ferndale Schools.  He says he does believe it is hard for community schools to thrive when charter schools suddenly without warning can open up next door offering a program already offered by a community school. He says the state should provide public schools with notice so they can properly plan on how to use tax dollars to best benefit students.  He says charter schools often offer the less expensive academic programs targeting kids on-line or in younger grades.  He says it impacts a school district’s ability to plan and fund programs. He says it is also about unbiased with oversight.

Prewitt pointed out universities have a financial incentive to authorize. They get 3% of per pupil funding from the schools they authorize. 

Saginaw Valley State University responded saying, "SVSU does not profit from authorizing charter schools. We receive the same administration fee as any other charter school authorizer. Beyond oversight expenses, we use the dollars we receive to benefit students by providing for professional development of teachers and by providing college scholarships to students who graduate from our charter schools.”

Saginaw Valley State University says it plans to meet with the leaders of Ferndale Schools and continue a full fact finding before making a decision on whether to authorize VAST Academy.