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Education
An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

NC Charter Chief Becomes Head Of Online Charter School

Charter_Advisory_Board.jpg
Lisa Worf
/
WFAE

The Director of North Carolina’s Office of Charter Schools took a new job this week. He is now the head of an online charter school that won approval from the state board of education this year. 

It made us wonder what policies the state has to ensure public employees aren’t applying for jobs with the same groups they may be vetting or negotiating contracts with. There aren’t many. 

Joel Medley is now the Head of Schools for North Carolina Virtual Academy. But up until last week, he led the state’s Office of Charter Schools. It oversees all of the state’s charters and helps analyze applications of groups applying to become charter schools.

That list of applications this year included the online charter Medley now leads.  He’s actually an employee of K12 Inc., the for-profit company that manages the school. The group had applied before, but failed to make it through the process. 

State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said Medley’s review of the school was thorough.

“I know he scrutinized these as closely as possible and brought up all the possible criticisms and negatives during the process,” says Cobey.    

Medley helped review North Carolina Virtual Academy last October. His part of it did include some tough questions about how many students the group expects would withdraw and how the school would plan to deal with children with disabilities.

State Board of Education members approved the school in February.  They didn’t have much choice since state law established a pilot program for two online charters and only two applied. 

“I don’t think there’s anything that went on between him and K12 before this approval.  In some cases you might suspect somebody, but not with Joel Medley, not at all,” says Cobey.   

Medley says he would never do that.  He says he didn’t talk to K12 about a job, until he saw the post in April and it seemed like a good fit. 

“My wife and I had conversations about looking to get back to a principalship and, in the last few months, it just kind of happened,” says Medley.    

He says he didn’t tell his bosses he applied for the job, but they knew in general he was thinking about moving on. 

Situations like this leave too much up to trust says Jane Pinsky, Director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform. 

“In many of these cases, people are not involved in something that’s malicious or wrong, but it does undermine citizen confidence and without citizen confidence our democracy doesn’t work,” says Pinsky. 

State law requires a six month cooling off period for lawmakers and certain high-level public employees who become lobbyists. But there isn’t anything like that for most public employees taking jobs in the areas they regulate or with companies or groups whose applications they may vet or whose contracts they may negotiate. 

State Superintendent June Atkinson doesn’t see conflict-of-interest concerns arising from Medley’s case. 

“He was not the deciding person as to which companies would get the charter,” says Atkinson.

Some state agencies have conflict of interest policies that cover what are called “revolving door” situations. But many like the Department of Public Instruction don’t. 

Two years ago, a Department of Health and Human Services employee who helped oversee the rollout of a Medicaid billing system took a job with the company responsible for the massive project that had problem after problem. That prompted State Senator Jeff Tarte and others to introduce bills trying to put restrictions on these situations.

“There needs to be appropriate steps followed to ensure even the perception of any impropriety is not present,” says Tarte.    

One such bill passed the Senate this year. It essentially places a six month cooling off period on any state employees who take jobs with companies they’re regulating or whose contracts they’re overseeing. It aims to do that by not allowing state departments to contract with any groups using these new employees to administer state contracts.