By Ted Cohen
The top school official in a major American city as part of an education-reform initiative is bringing in yet another nonprofit foundation, yet as little is known about Turnaround for Children Inc. as is known about how it fits into Supt. Cami Anderson’s plan to modernize Newark, New Jersey’s schools.
Anderson refuses to respond to open requests for information, and Turnaround officials – where the secretive ex-newsie Campbell Brown sleeps on the board (http://gawker.com/5936190/campbell-brown-is-incapable-of-understanding-the-concept-of-disclosure) – are equally evasive.
Brown’s lackings also caught the sharp eye of Karoli Kuns. (http://crooksandliars.com/karoli/campbell-brown-crawls-out-under-her-rock-sl)
Attempts to contact New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf have been met with similar silence.
As a longtime newspaper reporter, I find transparency hard to come by. Nonprofits should make transparency their middle name.
In fact, Guidestar.org is helping promote transparency, announcing recently its intent to “encourage nonprofit transparency on a national scale.”
A bit of history: Anderson arrived in New Jersey’s largest school district in 2011. She brought with her an education-reform movement. The city’s public schools are among the lowest-performing in the state, even after the state government took over their management in 1995.
Although the school district continues to struggle with low high school-graduation rates and low standardized-test scores, the mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, insists, “Newark, New Jersey can become one of the first American cities to solve the crisis in public education.”This vision for better school district is also shared by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who made a $100 million donation to Newark Public Schools in 2010.
HuffPost’s Joy Resmovits called Newark “a national test case for the fixing of troubled urban schools and the use of major philanthropic dollars in an educational system.”
Now, Turnaround For Children is interviewing schools in Newark for September. What is Turnaround and what is its proposed role in Newark? The best source for information would be Turnaround, right?
Turnaround has refused to provide information about its failed foray into Orange schools and whether that experience foretells problems in Newark. That’s not the way to run a nonprofit. Obfuscation begets journalistic cynicism – and scrutiny.
Turnaround’s entry into the reform movement began with Orange, N.J., as well as New York City and Washington, D.C. But as soon as the Orange effort began, it failed, according to Turnaround’s nonprofit filing with the Internal Revenue Service.
Tax documents filed with the IRS by Turnaround – accessible through Guidestar.org – disclose the program’s unexpected suspension. The documents, a public record, also reveal that Turnaround was forced to return the remaining part of the grant that funded the program.
“Management decided to terminate its three-school program earlier than planned,” Turnaround officials told the IRS. In their IRS filing, Turnaround officials blamed the short-lived program’s demise on what they vaguely described as a “shift in organizational priorities.”
But officials failed to disclose what they meant by the change or who instigated it.
Turnaround officials say they suspended their request for the remaining funding they were to receive for the Orange project, but they made no mention of the amount of funding they had already received and the amount they were still due.
Turnaround officials issued a prepared statement defending their Orange pullout. “Our hope was to expand the partnership, to deliver a significant amount of professional development to teachers and to increase our engagement district-wide,” said Kate Felsen, vice president of communications. “Unfortunately, Orange Public Schools did not have the capacity to take on the professional development we had to offer during the 2011-12 year. For this reason, we ended our partnership amicably.”
Though Turnaround proudly announced the Orange project in its September 2010 newsletter, there is no evidence on the organization’s web site that Turnaround officials ever notified the public of the program’s suspension.
If Orange school officials are to blame for Turnaround’s failure in their schools, then they are apparently taking the accusations in stride. Orange Supt. Ronald Lee refused to respond to questions. He submitted a statement finally after receiving a formal open-records request.
He said, “Turnaround proposed to expand its program to a transformational model that encompassed academic, foundational and behavioral elements in the 2011-2012 school year. At the same time, the district was continuing or launching a number of significant initiatives to improve instruction and student outcomes. We mutually concluded that the district’s initiatives would require and deserved the full focus of the district staff, principals and teachers. Therefore, we discontinued the program in Orange at that time to allow these innovations to take hold.”
Felsen, too, will not go beyond her prepared statement. When asked who funded the Orange effort and who will be funding the Newark plan, Felsen replied, “You have my statement.”
More to the point, attempts by journalists to procure information from this so-called “transparent” group – as described by GuideStar.org – have been met with silence, stalling and arrogance.
To garner and cultivate pubic support, i.e., more dollars, nonprofits need to be open, accessible. Not hiding. What language do they understand – “lawsuit?”
Ted Cohen of Maine is a veteran newspaper and radio reporter who follows trending national issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @TedCohen1.