Charter school operator under fire from the Post-Dispatch

Monday, October 26, 2009 | 9:45 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — The chief of national charter school operator Imagine Schools advocates controlling school boards and limiting their authority in an e-mail obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Dennis Bakke, who is CEO of the Arlington, Va.-based company, told his employees in the September 2008 electronic missive they should select board members who will "go along with Imagine." He also recommends in the three-page e-mail that employees obtain undated letters of resignation from school board members "that can be acted on by us at any time."

The e-mail from Bakke appears to violate a primary tenet of the charter school movement, which is that schools should be independently governed by local leaders. It also appears to run afoul of nonprofit law and state charter school statutes.

"That is appalling. I am appalled," Jocelyn Strand, Missouri's director of charter schools, said after reading the memo.

Bakke notes in the e-mail that it is just his "thoughts, observations and suggestions," not "an announcement of official policy" for the national company. It says on its Web site that it runs 74 public charter schools in 12 states, including Missouri, as well as the District of Columbia.

His executives said the company followed the law in each state and that the memo was nothing more than a discussion item.

Charter schools are publicly funded and exempt from many rules and regulations, which advocates say encourages educational innovation. Some charters choose to hire management companies like Imagine Schools, although nonprofit boards are supposed to have the ultimate authority.

An attorney for Missouri Baptist University, the area charter schools' state-authorized steward, said he was confident that Imagine's schools in St. Louis were governed properly. University leaders, he said, have been "satisfied with everything we've seen so far."

But regulators said the letter reinforced what they had long believed. Several said they would now look at applications involving Imagine with greater scrutiny.

When Bakke sent the e-mail, Imagine was struggling with governance issues in Nevada, Colorado, Florida and Missouri.

Imagine executives said they did not object to the bulk of Bakke's letter.

Executive Vice President Sam Howard said school leaders had not asked board members for "undated letters of resignation," as suggested in the letter. But otherwise, he said, he basically agreed with the points.

Paul Faber, Imagine's Missouri regional executive director, said it's frustrating when Imagine puts up the cash, time and personnel to start a school, and then, a year or two down the line, the school board begins to question the company's utility.

"Ultimately, do you really need a board to run a school?" he asked.

"No. You really don't."

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