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Opinion | Michigan charter school boards ensure financial accountability

One of the great honors of my life came when I raised my right hand for the first time and took the oath of office as a charter school board member. For the past 11 years, I’ve been a board member at McDowell Preparatory Academy, a charter school in northwest Detroit that is authorized by the Detroit Public Schools Community District. I’m honored to be currently serving as the board’s president.


Nicole Wells Stallworth
Nicole Wells Stallworth is CEO of The Children’s Center in Detroit and board president at McDowell Preparatory Academy, a charter school in northwest Detroit.

At McDowell Prep, we serve a community of students in grades K-8 with a focus on preparing them for college and success in life. Our students are 98 percent African American and almost all of them live within a five-mile radius of the school.

If there’s any confusion about how charter schools operate, and how their boards helpensure financial accountability and transparency, I’d like to help clarify. Every charter school has a board that’s appointed by its authorizer. These are public boards in every way. Like me, every charter school board member is a public servant. As a board, it’s our responsibility to ensure the fiduciary success and strength of our academy.

We have to be good stewards of the tax dollars going to our academy and ensure that those dollars are getting into the classrooms and supporting the educational programming we’re looking to see.

Accountability is present throughout a charter school on several levels. As a board, we’re accountable to our authorizer and the state of Michigan. If a school has a management company, that company is accountable to the board. Most of all, we’re accountable to our students and their families. It’s our role to ensure that when we set academic achievement goals, we put everything in place to ensure these goals are met. We have to remove any barriers that might prevent our students from succeeding.

The board decides how best to structure the school in a manner that will support students, their families and the community. And that can be different for each school based on their needs and situation. 

Some schools choose to have a management company help them achieve their goals. McDowell had a management company for several years. It was our role as a board to know the details of the management agreement and to manage their service and deliverables. As a board, we decided to make a change and go to self-management, which turned out to bethe better option for McDowell because that allowed us to look for a superintendent who was completely aligned to the vision of ensuring that our student scholars could succeed.

The board weighs in and approves the budget and provides proper oversight without getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the school. We review the finances on a regular basis. That includes reviewing regular public audits of the school, understanding the facilities lease and any purchasing arrangements. 

When we took an oath to be charter school board members, we pledged to be good stewards of the school’s finances in accordance with the law. We take that role very seriously.

When the budget is presented to us, the board has to do its due diligence to ensure that it understands where the resources are being allocated. At the end of the day, that approval means that we have thoroughly vetted this budget and approved where the resources are being allocated in service to the mission of the school.

The authorizer is the entity that holds our contract and holds us accountable for the school’s performance, both fiscally and academically. It’s a huge responsibility, but I’ve loved every minute of my time as a board member at McDowell Prep. I’m also so proud of the job we’ve done helping our students succeed not just academically, but in other ways, as well.

After enduring the trauma of the pandemic in Detroit, for example, we learned that nearly half of Detroit children were impacted by their primary caregiver either losing a job or losing their life to the pandemic. So as a board, we allocated additional resources to providing the type of behavioral health care that our students needed.

In all areas, we have a vision of what we want, and that is what we focus on as we make decisions as a board. It’s achieving the vision and the purpose of what our board is there to do, which is to ensure the academic success of our students.

Every time I’m reappointed to the board, I have to raise my right hand and take the oath of office again. That’s very important, and it’s such a great honor. I’m a charter school board member. I’m a public servant. I’m proud of the ways in which we’re accountable to both the taxpayers and to our students. And I’m very excited for what the future holds at McDowell Preparatory Academy.

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