Children sit on a rug
(File photo) Children sit in a Brookside Charter School classroom Aug. 22. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Oct. 3, 2022: This story was updated to reflect a change to the Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy website that makes information about how to join or comment at a meeting more prominent.

In Kansas City, the board members who govern many public schools never stand for election. 

That’s because charter schools, which enroll about the same number of students as Kansas City Public Schools, aren’t run by the publicly elected leaders who oversee traditional school districts. Instead, they’re governed by nonprofit boards that appoint their own new members. 

Combined, Kansas City charter schools enrolled more than 13,000 K-12 students last year. Each of the 20 charter schools — some of which include multiple locations — has its own board. 

Like traditional school districts, charter schools have different policies and procedures regarding transparency and the ease with which the public can access information. 

If you’d like to see a local charter school board in action, comment at a meeting or have a say in who serves on the board, it’s helpful to understand both the general principles that apply to all charter school boards and the nuances of the specific school you’re interested in. 

How charter schools — and their boards — differ from traditional public schools

Charter schools are independent public schools. They’re publicly funded and free to attend, but don’t have to follow some of the same regulations as other public schools. 

Outside of a few special circumstances, charter schools in Missouri are only allowed within the Kansas City and St. Louis school districts. They aren’t part of those school districts and aren’t directly overseen by the school boards that local voters elect. (KCPS does have an oversight role for several charter schools that the district sponsors.) 

Instead, each charter school has a nonprofit board. When the board needs new members, the current members fill the vacancies. 

Following a law change earlier this year, charter school board members must live in Missouri. 

Doug Thaman, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said the public’s inability to vote for charter school board members doesn’t mean there’s no recourse if a board member is doing a bad job. 

The boards’ nonprofit bylaws include procedures for removing members, for example if they stop attending meetings or have a conflict of interest. 

“Actually, we see that as greater accountability because it’s something that is part of every board meeting and available to the community, to the parents, as opposed to having to wait for an election,” Thaman said. 

He suggested any member of the public who is interested in raising concerns should contact the school to find out how the process works. 

“Typically, it’s to place their concerns in writing and send that to the board chair who then would bring that to the full board,” Thaman said. 

Some schools have additional processes for including parent input. For example, Academie Lafayette, a French immersion charter school, has two board members who are elected by parents. 

Thaman said members of the public can also sign up for public comment at board meetings to suggest potential new members, or can contact board members directly with ideas. 

In fact, Thaman said one of the biggest challenges for schools is trying to identify enough people who want to be board members. 

“It’s always great when we know there are people who are interested in serving,” he said. “It’s a great way to give back to the community and volunteer.”

What’s the same for charter school boards and traditional school boards

Despite their different origins, charter school boards have an almost-identical function to traditional public school boards, Thaman said. 

“They’re still responsible for fiscal oversight, governance in accordance with the law, ensuring compliance,” he said. “They’re responsible for the evaluation of the superintendent.”  

Charter school boards also must follow many of the same requirements as other public schools boards, Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in an email. 

That includes: 

  • Complying with public meetings rules under Missouri law.
  • Treating all board documents as public records, which are governed by Missouri Sunshine Law and must be accessible to the public unless specific exceptions apply. 
  • Posting meeting dates, times and agendas publicly. 
  • Holding meetings that are open to the public. The Missouri Sunshine Law allows boards to close portions of meetings under specific circumstances, such as when they address legal issues or employee discipline. 
  • Including room for public comment on the agenda. 

No matter what kind of public school board you’re dealing with, you should be able to find out when meetings take place, attend them, sign up to address the board and view agendas and other board documents. 

Thaman said charter school board members also have to file financial disclosures and avoid conflicts of interest. 

Learning to navigate a specific school board 

All school boards still have some latitude to create their own procedures, such as deciding how far in advance someone needs to sign up for public comment or whether to record board meetings. 

Like traditional districts, some charter schools make it easier than others to participate, navigate websites or access documents. 

For example, Academy for Integrated Arts posts quarterly financials, check registers and purchasing card records on one of its main board pages. In addition to more standard information about meeting access, Brookside Charter School includes pie charts of board members’ gender, race and roles they fill in the community, such as parent or educator. 

Kansas City Girls Preparatory Academy recently updated its website to make it easier to find information about board meetings, including dates, locations, Zoom links and instructions for participating in public comment. The information is now prominently featured at the top of a “Board” page that links from the homepage menu.

In contrast, the “Board Members” item on Hope Leadership Academy’s website links only to names, photos, quotes and LinkedIn pages of board members. It isn’t clear where to find meeting information. 

To join a KC International Academy school board meeting over Zoom, members of the public must email in advance to receive a meeting link and password, and are asked to provide their name and reason for joining. 

If you’d like to get involved in a board meeting for any charter school, it’s helpful to have some basic information first.

You can start by checking the following links: 

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.