Forcing Hope where there is none 

So much for local control.

It used to be a no-brainer: Locally elected officials know what's best for their local communities. In fact, 'round these parts, natives used to be known to get downright nasty when it came to outsiders telling them what to do.

So, given the above, what do you do if a group of non-locals come into your school district and say they want to operate an online school, where they would teach, oh, 88 students or so?

Let's call the school "Hope Online Learning Academy Co-Op," or "Hope" for short. And let's just say you're an elected member of the largest school district in the area, say, the District 11 Board of Education.

Well, first you take a look at the test scores gauging how "Hope" students are doing. Lackluster is the most polite term you can possibly offer. In fact, the students are averaging 20 percent proficiency. You realize your board has closed actual, real-life schools whose students had better test scores.

You then take a look at "Hope's" financial statements and just about have a heart attack. Or, to put it more politely, you discover many "alarming findings." Including past financial errors that resulted in likely violations of state law and that "demonstrated a lack of knowledge of public school finance." And several million dollars' worth of errors from not properly counting their students across the state. Plus a current deficit that makes the bean-counters suspicious whether "Hope" can possibly recover.

"Charters," "choice," "online" and such buzzwords are all the rage these days. But still, you balk. These are children, entrusted to you for their education.

"No thanks," you say to "Hope," which appears a misnomer in this case.

This is exactly what happened in District 11. In February, the seven-member school board unanimously rejected the "Hope" application for an online school here.

"We took a look at it and said, "This is a failing operation,'" says board member Charlie Bobbitt. "It fails, as far as I'm concerned, miserably."

Says Glenn Gustafson, the district's chief financial officer: "Their liabilities exceed their assets by $4 million. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to say this organization is on the verge of bankruptcy."

So what did the people of "Hope" do? Did they consider that, just perhaps, they should get their, uh, problems worked out? Of course not. They went over the local school district's head. Specifically, they ran crying to the state Board of Education, and demanded a rehearing.

D-11 officials mounted their defense, outlining all of the red flags.

"... Entering into the proposed [memorandum of understanding] with [Hope] is not in the best interests of the pupils, parents and community of the District, nor of the District itself," they wrote.

"If the District's decision is overturned ... it will send a message to local school districts that a careful review of online learning centers is futile."

And you know what? On a 4-2 vote, the state Board of Education "ordered" (its word) District 11 to reverse its unanimous decision, and allow the substandard, financially shaky operation into the district. It absolutely is, they said, in the best interests of the pupils, parents and community.

And, here's the cherry on top: The four members of the state board who rendered this "order" are all Republicans members of a political party that used to go berserk when outsiders came in and usurped local control.

For the record, those Board of Education members who have given us a failing "Hope" include: Peggy Littleton, Randy DeHoff, Pamela Suckla and Bob Schaffer who is also currently running for the United States Senate. (Two Democrats, Elaine Gantz Berman and Evie Hudak, cast the dissenting votes; board member Jane Goff was out of the country.)

This is how local school board member Bobbitt sums it up:

"It's one thing to tout charters. But when one is failing, and when the local board looks at it and says it's failing and decides not to approve that failing charter, and then the [state Board of Education] goes ahead and approves it, well, it's just unconscionable."



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