Charter group uses sham boards and thwarts access to records to prevent accountability to the public, which spent $79 million on Great Hearts schools last year
PHOENIX—A local advocate for transgender youth and the ACLU of Arizona filed a lawsuit today against Great Hearts, an Arizona public charter school group, because of its refusal to conduct open meetings and release public records.
Great Hearts, which took in more than $79 million from Arizona state sources during its 2017 fiscal year, has a pattern of avoiding public accountability. Great Hearts has managed this by building a multi-level corporate structure that improperly shields the officers and directors who make policy decisions for Great Hearts schools.
Great Hearts created two corporate entities, GreatHearts America and GreatHearts Arizona, which formulate and dictate policy for Great Hearts schools across Arizona. The Great Hearts group claims these two corporations are not subject to public meetings or records oversight, thereby allowing vital information about the schools’ operations to be hidden from the public.
Robert Chevaleau had a child enrolled in a Great Hearts school until the charter group, which has 22 schools operating in Arizona, in June 2016 adopted a discriminatory policy that targeted transgender students. Mr. Chevaleau, an advocate for transgender youth, wanted to voice his concerns at a meeting of Great Hearts’ policy-making board, but Great Hearts denied him access. When Mr. Chevaleau asked Erik Twist, president of Great Hearts Arizona and a board member of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, if he could attend a planned Great Hearts board meeting, Mr. Twist laughed and said that it would be a closed meeting. Great Hearts’ repeated refusal to conduct public meetings or disclose meeting information, such as the day, time, location and agenda, is in violation of the Arizona Open Meetings Law.
“Great Hearts’ anti-transgender policy allowed school staff to mistreat transgender students by classifying them in accordance with their sex assigned at birth, not their gender identity,” Chevaleau said. “How can Great Hearts claim that it is committed to public education when they refuse to protect the rights and dignity of all their students? Rather than foster inclusive classrooms and communities, Great Hearts has chosen to hide behind closed doors and refuses to hear from concerned community members.”
Great Hearts has a pattern of making important policy decisions behind closed doors. In February 2018, a 12-year-old boy was forced out of a Great Hearts campus due to the school’s discriminatory grooming policy. The school’s governing board adopted an amended “Hair Policy” after public outcry but, once again, decided the policy in a closed-door meeting, which lasted less than five minutes.
In September 2017, the ACLU of Arizona submitted a public records request to Great Hearts in an effort to gather information about the charter group’s adoption of the anti-transgender policy. In a response months later, Great Hearts refused to provide records from its policy-making bodies, claiming that they are not subject to Arizona’s public records law. In response to a subsequent request for public records, Great Hearts provided improperly redacted records from individual school “governing boards,” sham committees that have no policy-making authority.
“Great Hearts has avoided all public accountability for the operation of its public schools by creating sham school boards,” said Anabel Maldonado, lead organizer for the ACLU of Arizona’s Demand to Learn campaign. “The so-called ‘governing boards’ of Great Hearts schools are stacked with Great Hearts employees, who have to toe the line or risk losing their jobs. They adopt whatever policies the Great Hearts corporations set—no questions asked.”
Because of Great Hearts’ refusal to release records or open its policy-making bodies’ meetings, the public has very little information about the deliberations behind Great Hearts’ anti-transgender policy, which the charter group recently modified behind closed doors. The lawsuit filed today asks a court to require Great Hearts to comply with the Arizona Open Meetings Law. Chevaleau and the ACLU of Arizona are also requesting a court to order Great Hearts to turn over all public records that the ACLU of Arizona has sought, and remove inappropriate redactions on documents already produced.
“Great Hearts has taken virtually every step possible to insulate itself from public oversight and to avoid any public accountability for these public schools,” said Kathy Brody, legal director for the ACLU of Arizona. “This amount of secrecy is simply unacceptable and should not be allowed for any public, taxpayer-funded school.”
In addition to Brody, attorneys representing Chevaleau and the ACLU of Arizona include ACLU of Arizona Staff Attorney Darrell Hill and Roopali Desai and Andrew Gaona of Coppersmith Brockelman PLC.
A copy of the lawsuit is available here.