From discussions about disenfranchising the town mayor, to passing over a pack of seemingly qualified applicants for vacant board seats, members of the Hillsboro Charter Academy community are concerned that the board of directors is distancing the school from its original mission.
HCA opened its doors in 2016 as the county’s second public charter school after the school division closed Hillsboro Elementary School.
“When we created the school, the idea was to be on the vanguard, it was to be a laboratory for innovation,” said Rebecca Fuller, the school’s first president.
As a charter school for students in grades k-5, the school is a part of the school division, but operated under its own board and manages its own budget. The school is run by a board of directors, on which, according to its charter, the town mayor has a seat.
Roger Vance has served as mayor since 2004, years before the charter school was founded.
Since the pandemic, the board has seen a great deal of turnover. Joe Luppino-Esposito served on the board for 10 months prior to being elected president in August 2021.
Luppino-Esposito took over the helm after a months-long battle over former president Gwen Wilf’s term. Wilf reportedly sought to stay past the end of her two-year term. After being granted a one-time term extension by the board to remain through the summer, Wilf left the board in August.
Former board member Nicki Bazaco also received an extension, and left her post in August. Months later, Pooja Aggarwal resigned in November. Aggarwal declined to provide comment.
The board has had a fluctuating number of seats since its inception, and currently there are five voting members, including Vance. Last fall, the board was presented with seven candidates—the most it has had in its history.
“We were overwhelmed with highly talented candidates who wanted to be on this board, and they wanted to bring a particular talent to the board, and be a key player and take on responsibilities,” Vance said of the candidates.
But the board tabled voting on new members. Luppino-Esposito said some board members felt a more deliberative selection process needed to be established. He said that some board members were put off by his own selection to the board, which they felt was too informal.
“We decided that we would put it on hold. And we said, ‘look, we need to make this process public. Do we want to do public interviews?’,” Luppino-Esposito said.
When the board met Jan. 24, there was a discussion whether to maintain the mayor’s voting status. Not vote was taken.
Vance said that the discussion was spurred by work with a charter school consultant.
“It was conveyed to me that it was a proposal that was put forward, nothing other than trying to conform to what seems to be more of a norm on charter school boards,” Vance said.
Vance said that during the discussion, board members were told about the school’s history with the town, and that the town’s support is integral to the functioning of the school.
“It’s someone from the Town Council having a seat, simply because of the history of the school its part of the fabric of our community. We fought for almost 20 years to keep that school open,” Vance said.
The conversation about mayoral voting power comes as the board is already short several members.
Before Aggarwal resigned, board member Charles Houston left the board over the summer following claims he made racist comments on social media. Luppino-Esposito said that electronic records were protected under FOIA law, as Houston was considered identifiable personnel.
Vance said that he believes that board members’ political affiliations are not relevant to the charter’s operations.
“The founding group, you couldn’t find a more politically diverse group that brought this institution together. I don’t think that really has a place here. It does concern me that there was this reluctance to act on these great candidates,” he said.
He said the board may have a special meeting to discuss choosing more members within the next month.