There’s a sense of déjà vu surrounding Odyssey Charter School.
Last spring, the Greek-themed charter was placed under formal review that ultimately led to probation.
Less than a year later, the school is back under review following reports of racially insensitive remarks made by members of the school's board of directors.
Contributor Larry Nagengast looks at how Odyssey is trying to get out from under scrutiny.
It has been a tough year for Odyssey Charter School – or at least for its board of directors.
With more than 1,900 students enrolled and its first seniors due to graduate in June, the K-12 charter school has experienced steady growth and its Greek-themed curriculum, including dual-language immersion classes in the elementary grades – makes it a unique option among Delaware’s 22 charter schools.
But a series of significant missteps by Odyssey’s board of directors placed the school in jeopardy of losing its charter and now “a different board … a new board” is pledging to right the ship and keep Odyssey sailing forward.
“All I can tell you is ‘we’re committed to doing better,” one of those new board members, Alisa Moen, told the state Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee (CSAC) on Monday during the first public hearing of the second formal review the school has undergone since early last year.
The first formal review concluded last July with the school being placed on probation through June 30. Terms of the probation included recovering more than $93,000 that had been improperly spent and revising the school’s bylaws so that, among other things, members of AHEPA, the male-dominated Greek fraternal organization that had founded the school, and its affiliated groups would no longer hold a majority of the seats on the school’s board of directors.
The probation also required the school to pay for an “investigatory audit” of selected accounts. The audit report, completed in December, found that the school could not document the reasons for more than 140 payments totaling over $250,000.
As the school was locating the paperwork related to those payments, which was submitted to DOE in late January, a new controversy developed as a pair of recordings of board meetings surfaced. In one, board members referred to an African American woman who had applied to fill an opening on the board as “a token.” In the other, board members jokingly proposed “building a wall” as a way to resolve ongoing traffic problems at drop-off and pick-up times for Odyssey and Academia Antonia Alonso, a dual-language Spanish-English charter elementary school that rents a classroom building at Odyssey’s Barley Mill Plaza complex. Most of Academia’s students are Latino.
Those remarks triggered the second formal review, announced in a notice from Secretary Susan S. Bunting on Feb. 12. In the following week, leaders of Academia Antonia Alonso threatened to move their school out of the Odyssey-owned building and five members of Odyssey’s board, including its president and the individuals responsible for the controversial remarks, resigned their positions and four replacements were named.
With Odyssey’s board in transition, the responsibility for explaining the board’s situation fell to Elias Rigas, the new board president, and Moen, a corporate lawyer and Odyssey parent, who had been named to the board in December, just before the latest controversies developed.
Simply put, the challenge Rigas and Moen face is this: Convince CSAC that it will meet all the terms of its original probation and repair the damage caused by the former board members’ insensitive remarks. Failure to do so could lead to additional sanctions, and possibly revocation of the school’s charter. Bunting is scheduled to announce her decision on April 23.
Rigas, noting that as of the start of the meeting he had been board president for “one and a half business days,” deferred to Moen, letting her explain the board’s recent actions, answer questions and describe its plans for moving forward.
Moen explained that in the last three months Odyssey had expanded its board from nine members to 11, with five spots reserved for members of AHEPA family organizations and six for non-AHEPA members. The board currently has eight members – three AHEPA and five non-AHEPA, and three vacancies. The vacancies are in the process of being filled, she said, and the non-AHEPA slots will be filled first because of the new requirement that AHEPA affiliates must remain a minority. Moen also noted that a non-AHEPA nominating committee will retain the applications of candidates not chosen to fill vacancies for a period of six months in order to create a “pipeline” of potential board members should openings unexpectedly occur. These potential board members will be asked to serve on committees and assist the board in other ways so they will be prepared to step in if needed.
Audrey Noble, the State Board of Education vice president and a non-voting CSAC member, noted that Odyssey’s board acted quickly after the board resignations to fill four openings on Feb. 18, and questioned Moen about whether the development of the policy to fill those vacancies was “fair and transparent.” Moen responded by noting that Odyssey’s board voted in December to develop the policy and pointed out that proper notice was given of all meetings to discuss the policy and to vet potential candidates.
Addressing the state’s concern that insensitive remarks by board members indicated a lack of effectiveness by the board, Moen said Odyssey has begun outreach efforts to line up organizations to provide the board and others in the school community with training on governance, diversity and inclusion topics.
Although there is not a firm timeline, the training will begin “in very short order,” with governance first, then diversity and inclusion, she said.
Odyssey officials briefly addressed questions concerning the school’s relationship with Academia Antonia Alonso. Moen said the matter is being handled by the board’s diversity and inclusion committee. Kendall Massett, a non-voting CSAC member and executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network, said her group is working to get leaders of both schools together.
“I don’t know how we got to where we are, but there’s work we’ve got to do,” Rigas added. “We have to understand their point of view as well.”
After the meeting, Moen said she believed that Odyssey’s responses had addressed the concerns the state had raised, but several steps remain to complete the process. Among the pending items: recovering the misspent $93,000 by June 30; responding to a series or questions related to paperwork associated with the audit; and submitting documentation related to the school’s communication plan and its policies for board nominations.
Near the conclusion of Monday’s meeting, both Noble and CSAC member Chuck Taylor, a retired charter school leader, addressed a broader concern: the need for Odyssey’s board to work effectively together and to regain a positive reputation with its many constituencies – parents, teachers, students and the community at large.
“It’s not easy to change the reputation of the group,” Noble said, noting the challenges the State Board of Education has faced with six of its seven members, herself including, assuming their seats within the last two years. “I’m glad you’re making these steps forward, and I wish you good luck.”
“It’s not going to happen in six months. It’s not going to happen in three months,” Taylor said, adding a piece of advice: “Do not let the minutiae get in the way of progress.”
Moen, referring to her professional experience advising corporate and nonprofit boards, said she believes that best practices for boards of directors are based on “discipline and process”: establishing the proper processes and then having the discipline to adhere to those processes.
“We do have a challenge ahead, in building trust in coming out of a tumultuous period,” Moen said of Odyssey’s board.
“The new board has not had much time to work together, but we are smart, professional and civil,” she said. “Will everybody be happy? Will we always succeed? No, but everyone will be heard.”