Q&A With TEA Monitor Dr. Monte Geren
Before Dr. Geren departed Winfree Academy we asked him a few questions regarding the current and future situation of the Charter School. Here is what he had to say:
1) After the time you spent at Winfree Academy do you think that the school has set a good foundation for the future?
Geren: Yes, I believe that Winfree Academy successfully complied with the Corrective Action Plan developed by the Winfree administrative staff and satisfactorily addressed the issues and concerns of the Texas Education Agency (TEA). In this process Winfree Academy developed and implemented appropriate policies, financial and governance procedures, improved operational routines, reorganized the administrative hierarchy, and most importantly, the administration and Board of Directors developed and implemented a sound strategy and positive philosophy of administration of the charter school. Superintendent/CEO Brandy Schott and the Winfree Academy Board of Directors have formed an effective team with a common goal of insuring that the charter school is operationally efficient, mission focused, and in compliance with the TEA regulations, state laws, federal laws, and the Winfree Academy Charter.
2) What kind of progress/what kind of work did Winfree Academy have to produce in order for the Commissioner to accept your recommendation for release?
Geren: Winfree Academy demonstrated significant and timely progress in their work to deal with the concerns discovered and reported in TEA investigative report. TEA required that Winfree Academy develop a Corrective Action Plan that specifically addressed the numerous issues and concerns that were identified by a lengthy investigation of Winfree Academy financial and governance operations over many years. TEA identified approximately 20 plus required actions that the academy had to satisfactorily address. In addition, my duties as financial and governance monitor led me to recommend that each of the specific violations, errors, omissions, etc., noted in the TEA Investigative Report, be identified and included in a matrix that became a guide for Winfree administrators as they reorganized the hierarchical organization chart for the academy, developed policies, procedures, and training related to budget reporting, budget development, personnel interviewing/selection, salary/benefits schedules, operational routines, and many more critical issues. Ms. Schott and her corporate administrators, and the Board of Directors, worked diligently to insure that the actions required by TEA, and those actions that were necessary and appropriate to further address the concerns listed in the matrix were thoroughly addressed. One of my duties as a monitor was to report on a quarterly basis to inform TEA and the Commissioner of the actions and efforts of Winfree Academy in their efforts to deal with the issues and concerns identified by TEA.
3) How cooperative was Winfree Academy in the implementation of the CAP and with you as the TEA monitor? What kind of attitude did Winfree Academy have (positive or negative)? What are some examples?
Geren: I was pleased to inform TEA and the Winfree Academy Board of Directors that from the first day of my assignment
to Winfree Academy the corporate administrators and staff and the board members were very professional, cooperative, positive, and cheerful
as they performed many tasks that were clearly “extra tasks” above and beyond their normal work responsibilities. The positive approach and
atmosphere created by the cooperation and support of Superintendent/CEO Brandy Schott and the Board of Directors enabled and contributed to
the rapid progress and relatively short time-frame of the monitor’s assignment.
The best general example of this was repeated over and over again during my assignment. As we reviewed the corrective action plan and the matrix, the leadership team demonstrated a positive approach which led to prompt actions to develop or revise policies, develop new procedures, forms, training, etc., to address that specific concern. Appropriate discussion occurred, but there was no “debate”, arguing, pleading, or denial that an action was necessary. Ms. Schott and her team, supported by the Board of Directors simply sought to understand the issue and set about the tasks/actions necessary to address the concern.
4) Going forward, how do you feel about the new leadership in place at Winfree Academy?
Geren: Ms. Brandy Schott, Supt./CEO demonstrated effective professional qualities including but not limited to
acceptable knowledge of the charter school history, charter document, and mission of the academy, decisiveness in decision-making, strong
character, integrity, sound judgment, and astute administrative and leadership skills from the commencement of her promotion to her current
position. Ms. Schott appears to have an effective rapport with the corporate and campus level staff and employee morale seemed to be very
good. Ms. Schott has demonstrated that she understands that the key to continued success for Winfree Academy will include her ability to
identify, promote and/or recruit knowledgeable, experienced administrators and staff to assist her in supervising and administering the
operations of the academy. She demonstrated numerous times her understanding of the role of the professional service providers such as
attorneys, auditors, financial advisors, etc., who are well qualified to advise her on the on-going issues that arise in the operation of a
charter school. I believe that the administrative leadership team that Ms. Schott has assembled will be successful in their work with her
and the Board of Directors to move the academy forward in its effort to comply with the myriad charter school regulations and to operate
effectively and efficiently.
I also believe that the Board of Directors are now more knowledgeable of the important role they must fulfill for Winfree Academy to remain viable and effective in the accomplishment of the academy’s mission. Ms. Schott has arranged and provided many hours of training for the board to insure that they are well informed of their duties and responsibilities as a board in their oversight of Winfree Academy operations. The Superintendent and Board of Directors must act as a team to insure that the academy’s financial, governance, and instructional operations are performed in compliance with applicable regulations to assure the integrity and viability of the academy. I believe that Ms. Schott and the Board are communicating effectively and working hard to implement the improved operational policies and procedures that have been developed.
Based upon my observations and cooperative work with Winfree Academy administrators/support staff and board members, I am confident that Winfree is in good “leadership” hands.
5) Where did you see the greatest improvement during your time with Winfree Academy?
Geren: This is a tough question because there was much improvement to be achieved in several areas as identified by the TEA Investigation Report; however, I think the key to getting the academy back on the right track was clearly a function of improving the administrative leadership and educating the Board of Directors regarding their important role. Revising and updating the organization chart to clarify some of the key administrative duties of the Superintendent/CEO was a critical step in the process. Board members were provided training to encourage them to ask questions of the administration, and were also provided information for identifying sources of outside assistance/support for both the board and the administration. The school’s auditing firm, attorney, architect, financial advisors, local bank officials as well as the Texas Education Agency and charter school organization are all excellent resources to assist the charter school when difficult operational issues arise. The old T.V. oil filter commercial with the auto mechanic’s memorable tag line “pay me now or pay me later” is certainly an applicable reference because many financial, legal, investment, and construction related issues arise each year and getting professional assistance up front is a more practical, efficient, and cost-effective way of dealing with these concerns.
6) How confident are you that Winfree Academy will maintain a high level financial accountability if they continue to implement the processes noted in the CAP?
Geren: I have a very high level of confidence that Winfree Academy will continue to improve its financial and governance policies and procedures and comply with the regulations by which the charter school must operate. The quality of the Superintendent/CEO, the corporate and campus administrators, and the membership of the Board of Directors is strong. These educational leaders have demonstrated over the 13 months of my monitor assignment that they desire and are committed to long term improvement of the academy. If I had not truly believed this, I would not have made my recommendation to withdraw the monitor assignment from Winfree Academy.
7) Were you impressed/surprised/unimpressed/other with the level of cooperation and the amount of progress made through your time at Winfree Academy?
Geren: As stated previously I was somewhat surprised and quite impressed with the level of professionalism, cooperation, enthusiasm of the administration and board, to address the TEA identified issues and concerns, and to restore Winfree Academy’s reputation and standing with TEA. In my final review of the corrective action plan and the improvements implemented to comply with the TEA Required Actions, the quantity, quality, and overall scope of all of the actions undertaken by Winfree Academy in a 13 month time period was persuasive and commendable.
8) Do you feel that the school is in a better position now than it was before you came? Why or why not?
Geren: Obviously, Winfree Academy Charter Schools is much stronger as an educational institution because of the
dedication, professionalism, and sheer hard work that the Board of Directors, Superintendent/CEO and corporate level administrators put into
their effort to correct and improve the numerous areas of concern which led to the TEA audits and intervention. As I stated to Ms. Schott
and the Board of Directors, going forward there is still much work to be done to insure that the improved policies, procedures, and routines
that have been implemented are constantly monitored and evaluated to insure appropriate outcomes. With the policy/procedural changes the
Winfree Academy has established the standards and expectations they desire, but they must now provide on-going diligence to make sure that
the previous concerns do not arise again and to prevent new negative issues from developing.
I want to re-emphasize my statement to Ms. Schott and the Board of Directors in my final board report that upon my arrival at Winfree Academy I advised them that I was not here to perform the tasks of compliance for the academy, but my duties were to advise and assist as necessary and appropriate in the recovery process. This is important for everyone to know because the accomplishments, improvements, and positive outcomes that led to my recommendation to Commissioner Williams are all the result of the conscientious and dedicated work of the Winfree Academy board, leadership team, and support staff.