Ask ELi: What’s the Deal with Cole Academy?
Come this fall, Cole Academy, a Lansing-area public charter school, is set to open a new school in East Lansing, located at 2921 Coleman Road. What do we know about Cole Academy?
The current school in Lansing is for kindergarten through sixth grade. When the new school opens, it will only house kindergarten through second grade. Plans call for the addition of a new wing each year to house the next grade — third, fourth, and so on — until the East Lansing school also runs kindergarten through sixth grade.
In a recent interview with East Lansing Info, Cole superintendent Brian Shaughnessy addressed ELi readers’ concerns about a charter school in East Lansing — concerns centered primarily on Cole’s non-profit status and from where the new school will draw students — and discussed Cole Academy and its relationship to the community more broadly.
Cole Academy is a nonprofit
There’s no vagueness when it comes to Shaughnessy’s explanation of Cole’s non-profit status. It’s a non-profit in every sense. Michigan business records show that Cole Academy is registered with the department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs as a “domestic nonprofit corporation.”
In Michigan, a non-profit corporation is governed under the Michigan Nonprofit Corporation Act. The act allows for a wide range of nonprofits, including an “educational corporation that is organized as a trustee corporation or a nonprofit corporation.”
"I think people don't know what we’re about,” Shaughnessy (below) said. “I think people are leery because it's a charter school."
In order to get nonprofit status, Cole Academy and its authorizer, Central Michigan University and the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools, submitted articles of incorporation to the State. This originally happened in 1994, when the first Cole Academy in Lansing was founded. (Cole Academy’s current articles of incorporation can be viewed here.)
This does not mean that Cole operates on a budget-neutral basis, Shaughnessy said, and records support this. Cole finished in the black the past three fiscal years, but, Shaughnessy said, leftover money gets rolled into next year's spending.
“It's not going to investors, it's not going to shareholders,” Shaughnessy said. “It's for the school, it's for the kids."
It takes on the form of bonuses for teachers, getting new computers and books or maintenance costs, among other things.
According to a wide-ranging 2016-17 annual report on Cole Academy produced by CMU and the Engler Center, the Academy went into the red in 2016-17, but that is accounted for by the construction costs of the new building.
Cole had $478,004 in its ending fund balance, according to the report. By the end of fiscal year 2017-18, Cole is set to finish with $132,600 in surplus for the year, according to an approved 2017-18 budget.
Where are the kids coming from?
More than 90 percent of Cole Academy’s students at its Lansing school came from the Lansing Public School District, according to the 2016-17 report.
There were seven students from Waverly Community Schools (3.3 percent) and eight students from six other local public school districts. Of those eight, one came from East Lansing Public Schools.
For the new campus on Coleman Road (shown below), located a mile or so west of the East Lansing Soccer Complex, Shaughnessy expects a similar draw for the new school, mainly because of Cole’s inroads in Lansing.
“I also do think there are going to be quite a few people from each of these towns [around East Lansing] coming over as people talk about it more and more,” Shaughnessy said.
Given the new school’s location on the city’s northwestern reaches, Shaughnessy also expects a fair share of new students from places like Bath Township and DeWitt. (As the Lansing State Journal recently reported, it’s about to get easier to travel from west of Route 127 to East Lansing on Coleman Road.)
The array of reasons for a parent to opt for a charter school is wide, ranging anywhere from low confidence in public schools, to a desire to put a child in a specific program, to a school’s proximity to home or a parent’s job. Cole, Shaughnessy said, prides itself on having a safe culture that is welcoming for all students and parents.
With East Lansing’s Hawk Nest neighborhood near to the new school, Shaughnessy’s hope is that eventually Cole’s reputation will begin to draw students from ELPS’ footprint.
Cole takes students on a first-come, first-serve basis unless it receives more applications than it can accept. In that instance, a lottery system is implemented, in accordance with State law.
Cole Academy, like all charters in Michigan, has an authorizer, which functions in a role akin to a parent corporation. In Cole’s case, that’s the Engler Center and Central Michigan University. The Engler Center and CMU are the authorizers of 57 charter schools, according to the center’s website.
Authorizers of charter schools range from public universities — Grand Valley State, Saginaw Valley State, and Ferris State authorize a fair share of charters, Shaughnessy said — to intermediate school districts.
However, Shaughnessy said, CMU is mostly hands-off. Cole Academy has a board of directors instead of a school board, which handles operations on a strategic level.
"We run the school independently from the board’s direction," Shaughnessy said, meaning that while the board sets the organizational and financial structure, the people working in the school run day-to-day operations.
Cole is a public school academy, meaning it charges no tuition and is open to all students who apply to attend through Schools of Choice. With this status, Cole is required to report annually to the State, like ELPS and other public schools. CMU also requires some annual and monthly reporting from Cole for things the State doesn’t, like insurance.
"This is a public school,” Shaughnessy said, “so we are required to do every other report and every other legal requirement a public school is supposed to do."
Though Cole isn’t bound by the same curriculum standards as public school systems, students take the same standardized tests as others in Michigan: the M-STEP and MAP.
The 2016-17 fiscal year report shows that Cole Academy students performed at or above the State average in math and English language arts on the M-STEP while coming in a shade below average in science and social studies — 5.4 and 1.5 percent below, respectively.
Even though Cole is a public school, it is still a charter without geographic district boundaries, which eliminates the possibility of levying mills for local tax revenue. In short: Cole is financially dependent on its authorizer and public dollars.
By law, Michigan schools are allotted a set amount for each student attending their school. But, according to an in-house analysis from CMU, public school districts like East Lansing and Okemos are projected to receive on average $538 more than Cole per-pupil in 2018-19.
“That adds up,” Shaughnessy said.
This public funding gap is due to public school districts attaching tax revenue from millages to the per-pupil allowance in their districts, something Cole can’t legally do.
Cole Academy had an enrollment of 210 in 2016-17, documents show, and the average class size is 30 students.
As far as concerns about Cole Academy costing local districts money by taking on students, Shaughnessy says “We're not taking 400 kids and taking the money and going to Grand Cayman, we're educating them."
Not part of a monolith
When Brian Shaughnessy looks at public schools, he sees a lot of excesses and inefficiencies.
He stressed how Cole, unlike other charter and some public schools, is not administrator-heavy — its administration consists of three people, Shaughnessy included — and saves money by keeping what the Cole administration sees as unnecessary and excessive costs to a minimum.
"You get to the end of the year and you have $250,000 left over in cash because we saved money,” Shaughnessy said. “We buy books, we buy computers, we renovate the building."
Cole contracts out its human resources needs to the tune of roughly $50,000 a year. By doing things like that, Cole both limits its own administrative web and saves money simultaneously, Shaughnessy said.
"We do use a la carte services for that,” Shaughnessy said of human resource needs, adding that custodial and other services are also contracted out.
Cole Academy is set to spend $955,930 of its $1,976,015 projected revenue on “instruction” by the end of the fiscal year, according to it’s approved 2017-18 budget. Only $324,600 is designated for administrative costs — both “general” and “school.”
But ultimately, Shaughnessy’s biggest point is that unlike a vast majority of charter schools, Cole is nonprofit that provides a different option than local public schools— he doesn’t want to be lumped in with the charter school monolith.
His emphasis, he stressed, is on being a good school, charter or otherwise.
“I look at this like, ‘How can we do better?’” Shaughnessy said.