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With Charters On Horizon, Mayor's Ties To School Choice Emerge

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer set off a firestorm of criticism earlier this month when the Democrat publicly expressed support for charter schools.

Stunned local school board leaders said they were caught off guard and unaware of his position. Some called his move a betrayal, claiming he and Republican lawmakers in Frankfort were waging "war" on Jefferson County Public Schools.

Fischer, however, has ties to the so-called school choice movement, which advocates for more private involvement in public education.

The mayor's father, George Fischer, started and serves as director emeritus for a powerful local nonprofit called School Choice Scholarships. Its focus is on diverting students from the public school system and into private schools. The organization hosts opulent fundraisers, and its board members have contributed money to Fischer’s mayoral campaigns, records show.

And while the mayor dismissed any influence those relationships may have on his own philosophy, he has long received political support from some in the school-choice community.

Public school advocates -- including two school board members -- say Fischer’s ties may create the perception of a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, an ethics expert said the mayor’s relationship to the school choice nonprofit and charter school proponents is a cause for concern.

“It’s a perception problem, at the very least,” said Richard Beliles, chairman of the Kentucky chapter of Common Cause, an ethics watchdog group.

Mayor Fischer went public with his support for charters just days after state legislation giving him the authority to approve charter school applications gained approval in the House of Representatives. The legislation authorizing charters in Kentucky, which awaits Gov. Matt Bevin's signature, would fundamentally change the landscape of education in Kentucky.

Fischer’s father, George, said he understood his son’s relationship to his organization, School Choice Scholarships, raises perception problems.

“People can think what they want to think,” he said.

The mayor, for his part, dismissed the notion of a conflict of interest in a brief interview on Thursday.

"That is so disconnected from reality," he said.

The Nonprofit

School Choice Scholarships has provided more than $8 million in private school scholarships to some 5,000 students since its inception in 1998, according to its website.

The organization's high-dollar fundraising events are often a spectacle of prosperity: single tickets cost $250 and sponsorships can balloon up to $34,000. In October 2016, guests were wooed with a private jet raffle and concert from the band Small Time Napoleon, according to an event flyer.

Those events regularly draw a who’s who of influential and wealthy Louisvillians, including Junior Bridgeman, David Jones, Hal Heiner and Mayor Greg Fischer himself.

George Fischer said the focus of the nonprofit's work has changed little since he helped found it.

“To give every child and parent, mainly, a school of their choice,” he said.

The nonprofit’s executive director, Heather Huddleston, earned a salary of $84,000 in fiscal year 2015, according to financial documents filed with the IRS.

Lately, she has been busy in Frankfort, working as the Kentucky director for the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter school group.

If charter school legislation is approved by state lawmakers, Mayor Fischer would be able to approve applicants seeking to establish such schools. School Choice Scholarships could then apply directly to Mayor Fischer to do just that.

Huddleston said that’s unlikely.

“Unless there was somebody on the board who felt strongly about that,” she said.

Rather, the nonprofit would seek to build relationships with charter schools, Huddleston said. And while she sees no conflict between Mayor Fischer’s position and his father’s role as director emeritus, she said the nonprofit would “love to help in any way.”

“We’re very pleased that Mayor Fischer has been supportive of the idea of charter schools,” she said. “We could definitely put him in touch with experts.”

School Choice Scholarships board members have donated nearly $11,000 to Fischer during his two successful runs for mayor, Kentucky Registry of Election Finance records show.

Donors include Kathy Oyler, who is married to Kent Oyler, the head of Greater Louisville Inc. That entity is also a vocal advocate for charter schools in Kentucky. Collectively, the Oylers have donated $5,000 to Fischer’s mayoral campaigns since 2009, records show.

Kathy Oyler was not immediately available for a comment.

Other board members who have donated to Fischer campaigns include Anita Barbee, a University of Louisville professor and expert in child welfare training; Gant Hill, a local commercial realtor; George Merrifield, a local entrepreneur; and Audwin Helton, who resigned from the city’s sewer district board of directors in 2011 after The Courier-Journal reported his company performed nearly $600,000 in work for the sewer district through no-bid contracts.

State Rep. Phil Moffett, a Republican who has sponsored his own legislation to bring charter schools to Kentucky, is also on the nonprofit's board. Moffett could not be immediately reached for a comment.

Beliles, the ethics watchdog, said money is an influential force when it comes to power and politics – regardless of the amount.

“It’s not a positive thing,” he said.

'Give everybody a chance'

George Fischer, 84, is proud of his Catholic school education.

He sent his own children to private school. But despite his advocacy for and practice of school choice, he said he supports public schools. As proof, he pointed to the taxes he is required to pay each year.

Still, he called the public school system a monopoly and said every student, regardless of their socio-economic status, should have the option to choose.

“An old-fashioned thing, give everybody a chance,” he said.

The elder Fischer said he doesn’t guide his son’s political philosophy and the board has no relationship to how Mayor Fischer thinks.

“But he’s also a free enterprise guy,” he said. “If certain kids can get a better chance in life and better odds for personal success, why not be for that.”

'It's a bit troubling'

Support for school choice and, specifically, charter schools has seemingly never been stronger in Kentucky.

Republican lawmakers have long fought to bring charter schools to the state and now are seeing their hopes fulfilled. Both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by the GOP, and Bevin is a staunch supporter of charter schools.

Charter schools are effectively public schools, but under the Kentucky legislation they’d be exempted from many state regulations governing traditional public schools.

Supporters contend they'll bring much-needed choice to parents and students unhappy with local public schools. Opponents say they’ll leach funding from public school districts that need the money.

Chris Brady, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Education, doesn't think Mayor Fischer should have the right to approve charter school applications.

“The fact that you have another official that is directing spending for the district, I think there is probably a constitutional issue or an issue of law that this would run up against,” he said.

And Fischer’s ties to the school choice movement are disconcerting, he said.

“It’s a bit troubling that you have a mayor that is actively seeking to support an agenda that they have direct family ties to,” Brady said.

School board member Chris Kolb said Fischer should focus more on other pressing city issues, including reducing crime and addressing alleged sexual abuse within the city's police department, than considering charter school applications.

"Seems like the mayor has enough crises on his hands to try to get on top of without sticking his nose into JCPS’ business," Kolb said.

Gay Adelmann is a member of the anti-charter school coalition Save Our Schools Kentucky. She’s a product of a public school education and the parent of a recent JCPS graduate.

Adelmann is also the co-founder of a group called Dear JCPS, which pushes the local public school system to be more accountable and transparent. She said opening the door for charter schools would invite waste and corruption into public education.

But one of the her biggest concerns are the hidden relationships.

“There’s a lot of money to be made, a lot of power to be grabbed,” she said. “There are a lot of strange bedfellows.”

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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