The Case Against the Lincoln Academy
Our tax dollars should not subsidize the most affluent in our community.
This story is a complicated one, and it should be. We're dealing with the education of our children. Beloit School District has had its failings. Anyone who disputes this claim is not operating in good faith. This debate isn't one of charter schools vs. public schools, although if it were there are some very strong arguments against charter schools. It is simply another instance where those with means silence those without. Beloit is owned by oligarchs operating in their best interest. To channel my inner-Dickens, there is no doubt whatever about that.
The saga begins well before the formation of Kids First Beloit, a non-profit created, or "incubated" by a group of the richest citizens of Beloit, WI, Beloit 200. No, it starts when Beloit 200 brought in consultants with a long history of creating charter schools and decimating our public school system. They didn't look at the Beloit School District from a "both sides" perspective; they had their plans and we're seeing them come to fruition. The hiring of these consultants, the ones who were brought in specifically to create a charter school, is part of what Beloit 200 calls "investing over two years of investigation into the Beloit educational landscape and the performance of its existing schools". If you're looking for more information about Beloit 200, you'll be hard pressed to find any. As I've noted before, Beloit 200 is anything but transparent. Perhaps they're embarrassed that as individuals, the members have collectively donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Super PACs and candidates running for office, but as a group are a tax burden on the city? See, Beloit 200 pays $1 dollar per year to house themselves in the historic pump house building on Riverside Drive. Major upkeep on the building is provided by the city, as well as the snow removal for a building that's rarely used. This means that, with the snowfall yesterday, Beloit 200 has cost taxpayers more in one day than they've provided the city within the multiple years of their tenancy. Quite ironic considering the salaries, political views, and political donations of these "leaders".
Beloit 200 then founded Kids First Beloit, the non-profit aimed at starting a charter school in the Beloit School District. While the UW Office of Educational Opportunity (the office responsible for granting the charter to the Lincoln Academy), Kristi Cole (the CEO of the Lincoln Academy), and Kids First Beloit would have you believe that they approached the school board in the spirit of cooperation, we know that their original intention was and always has been a "non-instrumentality" charter school. In short, a non-instrumentality charter school is one that is supplemented by your taxes but not subjected to hearing your voice.
So, why would Kids First Beloit be so adamant that Lincoln Academy be a non-instrumentality? What do we know about Diane Hendricks, leader of Beloit 200, incubator of Kids First Beloit? Well, we know she loves upscale hotels and cafes, she loves charging $7 for a street taco, and she loves pant suits. We also know, through her political donations and her reported history, that she hates unions. She absolutely despises workers' rights, evidenced by her partnership with most recent gubernatorial loser in the state of Wisconsin, former Governor Scott Walker, to make Wisconsin a "right-to-work" state. Make no mistake about it; this school is explicitly anti-union. By being a non-instrumentality, Hendricks has siphoned away our taxes without so much as given her teachers bargaining rights.
In 2019, then director of the UW Office of Educational Opportunity, Aaron Seligman, reviewed the Lincoln Academy's Phase One application. In it, Kids First Beloit noted that "Beloit 200 (previously Beloit 2000 and Beloit 2020) has a strong track record, leading and supporting the development of an array of community initiatives intended to improve the quality of life in Beloit in order to attract and retain a strong workforce and to spur economic development. A sample of recent efforts include donation of land for the recently completed Beloit School District welcome center and administration building, support to enable a Beloit expansion of the Milwaukee-based ACTS housing organization to increase homeownership in Merrill and Hackett neighborhoods, and opening of Nature at the Confluence, a public-private partnership that created an urban environmental learning center on a 72- acre property on the state line." The application fails to mention that in their "donation" of land for the welcome center, over $1 million went to local architectural firm Angus Young and Associates. Their charter school application notes Angus Young and Associates president Joe Stadelman as a member of the Lincoln Academy launch team and a Beloit 200 member. The application also fails to note that Nature at the Confluence isn't even in the state of Wisconsin. "Stateline"? Sure. West side of Beloit, where our community could use civic leadership now more than ever? Not a chance. Seligman noted in his review of the phase one application that, "The application suggests some community outreach was done but does not present evidence of community support." There was no evidence of community support because, quite frankly, there didn't need to be. Beloit citizens are merely pawns in the chess game of the leaders of Beloit 200; "community support" wasn't evidenced in the application because there was none. We do know that Beloit 200 approached at least one community leader with the promise of a donation to their church while being asked to serve on the Lincoln Academy board of directors, or the community advisory council. We're proud to be associated with that community leader, who not only turned down said donation but was willing to go to the Beloit Daily News to report the corruption. The Beloit Daily News passed on the story.
Phase two of the application process came in 2020. The first part of note in the phase two application is the Kids First Beloit Community engagement log for a calendar year. The log shows 29 instances of "community engagement". Only two of those 29 events show the general public as the intended audience; one of those events was the WCLO radio interview mentioned at the bottom of this page. There were more listening sessions for employees of local large Diane Hendricks-affiliated businesses than there were for the general public of our community, including multiple instances of listening sessions being held at restaurants owned by Hendricks Commercial Properties. Within the application, after the community engagement log comes the letters of support from local community "leaders". The first letter of support comes from Beloit 200, creator of Kids First Beloit, signed by Beloit 200 President and Hendricks Commercial Properties CEO Rob Gerbitz. This feels like a college applicant including a letter of recommendation from their dad. The letter is followed by a list of Beloit 200 members, notable because there is no public list of members available other than this list, buried deep in this phase two application. The application then continues with letters of support from the Beloit Chamber of Commerce, Stateline Boys and Girls Club, Blackhawk Technical College, and Community Action, Inc. And while I don't doubt the support of these organizations, it is of note to mention the tax-exempt nature of each organization.
The letters of support from individual community members opens with a Beloit School District success story. A 2015 graduate of Beloit Memorial High School and college graduate, the community member is now an employee of Diane Hendricks contracting firm Corporate Contractors, Inc. If Gerbitz and Beloit 200's recommendation felt like a paternal one, this one is from the younger sibling. This letter shows an actual success story from the Beloit School District, of which the community member admits, "I have come to find out, the school district worked for students like myself who are self-motivated and always knew college was the next step after high school." This community member is entitled to their opinion and I'm pleased they're speaking up for something they believe in. However, unless Lincoln Academy leadership specifically fills the school with non-motivated students, I fail to follow the logic. The second individual community letter of support comes from Jean Marie McKearn. Local documents appear to show a Jean Marie McKearn is married to a Frank McKearn. Frank McKearn is a disclosed board member of Beloit 200. Her letter is wonderfully written; in it she notes, "My school-aged children are currently each enrolled in a different school district based on their individual needs. I have first-hand knowledge that one size indeed does not fit all." This would be a convincing piece of support for the Lincoln Academy if she'd disclosed what appears to be a clear conflict of interest. Instead, it becomes another instance of the richest members of our community manipulating their own voices; amplifying them and disguising them as unaffiliated. There are two more letters of support from community members, one sharing their life story, even including a quick recap about their vacation in Paris. They have a right to their opinion and once again, I support voicing it, but their lifestyle is certainly non-indicative of those who the Beloit School District are admittedly failing the most. Diane Hendricks then personally pens a letter of support for the project; if Gerbitz and the community member's words amounted to familial support in the metaphorical college application, Hendricks letter of recommendation is that of the massive donor of which the support can't be ignored for fear of financial retribution. Beloit College might have some words on what it's like to hold dissenting views from the local billionaire.
In the opinion of this writer, nothing in the phase two application should be under more scrutiny and more of a microscope than the projected financial records of the Lincoln Academy. The UW Office of Educational Opportunity has trusted the Lincoln Academy with over $2.9 million of our tax dollars. While that number might not seem high to the oligarchs in charge of this project who can afford hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to political causes, including crazy conspiracy theorist Marjorie Green, $2.9 million is a lot of taxes. Phase two of the application process requires they provide a revenue and expenditure budget for the first three years of operation. They've included these figures with their application. Only now, just this month, the Lincoln Academy has decided they're going to add a sixth grade in year one. The budget proposal figures submitted with the phase two application indicates that prior to this very recent change, Lincoln Academy would not have had an enrolled sixth grade until year five. This entirely changes the projected financials for every single statement attached to their phase two application. What is the point of requiring documents if the documents can be entirely changed, altered, or voided after the charter was granted but before educating begins? In explaining their most recent change, the Lincoln Academy cited statistics that indicated the poor performance of Beloit sixth graders. But these statistics aren't new, and they aren't groundbreaking. The most cynical of Beloiters, who are often correct, will tell you that there's a group affluent parents of current fifth graders who gained a private audience with a powerful group of people and have now averted one more year for their children in the school district as it is constituted currently. That's not something I'd put my name on but understand that I've heard that reaction from multiple Beloit citizens I've shared thoughts with. This is the culture of a candid middle-class Beloit. There's an assumption of corruption afoot.
On Friday morning, I sent an email to Vanessa Moran, the Director of the Office of Educational Opportunity at the University of Wisconsin. She responded with a request that I call her back, to which I did, and we had a constructive thirty-minute conversation. She ensured me transparency and accountability and I thanked her for that. I'm still awaiting her response to my questions regarding the since inaccurate projected financials of the Lincoln Academy and will update once a reply is received.
None of what I'm reporting here you'll find in the archives of the Beloit Daily News or the Janesville Gazette. Likewise missing is the story about Diane Hendricks lack of property taxes on her Afton, WI mansion, her lack of state income taxes for multiple years, or the lack of details on how much more the Lincoln Academy is going to cost the Beloit School District now that they've changed course and added another grade level in year one. The article to announce the last-minute change was simply a parroting of the Lincoln Academy talking points. The Beloit Daily News is simply a propaganda machine. I reached out to reporter Hillary Gavan with my concerns who assured me there is no slant. There is either ineptitude at basic reporting or clear partnership with those most in power. Neither is favorable. Gavan has assured me that she is covering the Beloit Public Education Network meeting tonight and conceded that she has no way of changing my already made-up mind on the biased reporting of her newspaper. I assured her that proper reporting, follow-up, and asking hard questions about accountability would go a long way in changing the mind of myself and the community.
The UW Office of Educational Accountability was created to silence voices like mine. It is not Democratic in nature, this much I was told directly by Director Moran. It is the assumption of many in this community, myself included, that the Lincoln Academy is a vanity project created by those with a collective net worth higher than the GDP of many countries and subsidized by our tax dollars to further the gap between the most affluent in our society and those who our school district needs to help the most. Siphoning assets from an already under-supported school district will not only continue to leave behind the most vulnerable, but it will continue to reenforce the notion in Beloit that those with means silence the voices of those without.
Diane Hendricks during an hour long radio interview with WCLO in January of 2020.
Those supportive of the cause to stop the richest people in our community from destroying our public school system can send a letter to the Beloit School Board. You can also reach out to the Lincoln Academy directly, here. If you're looking to contact Beloit 200 directly, you'll find no public contact information; as the richest people in our community they're explicitly anti-transparent.
UPDATE: On February 2nd, the Beloit Daily News ran a flimsy piece aimed at showing a facade of impartiality. Read my response here. Thank you.
My submitted public comment to the Beloit City Council: https://www.theplacetobe.online/post/public-comment
Diane Hendricks political donations: https://www.opensecrets.org/search?order=desc&q=Diane+Hendricks&sort=D&type=donors
Diane Hendricks donates to QAnon believer Marjorie Green: https://wisconsinexaminer.com/brief/wisconsin-billionaire-hendricks-donated-to-georgias-qanon-congresswoman/
Wisconsin Examiner article from July 2020: https://wisconsinexaminer.com/2020/07/07/beloit-billionaire-diane-hendricks-controversial-charter-school/
Lincoln Academy phase two application: https://www.wisconsin.edu/oeo/download/Kids-First-Beloit_Final-Attachments_PhaseII_compressed.pdf
Lincoln Academy phase one application: https://www.wisconsin.edu/oeo/index.php?gf-download=2019/11/The-Lindoln-Academy-Phase-1-Final.pdf&form-id=6&field-id=25&hash=edadb0ef168d7714cec390f5fb3cc343e6285ed41669274756719a735bbeb657
Beloit 200 dot com: Beloit200.com
Diane Hendricks wealth grew $2.7 billion during the pandemic: https://www.wclo.com/2020/07/03/diane-hendricks-wealth-billionaire-forbes-pandemic-citizen-action/
Full length WCLO interview with Diane Hendricks, Kristi Cole, and Lisa Furseth: https://www.wclo.com/episode/1-3-2020-diane-hendricks-kristi-cole-and-lisa-furseth-proposed-lincoln-academy-charter-school-in-beloit/
Weapons of Mass Deception:
No State Income Taxes 2012 - 2014: https://dailyreporter.com/2016/06/09/abc-supply-owner-paid-no-income-taxes-for-years/
Substantially Under Assessed Property Taxes: https://urbanmilwaukee.com/2017/05/17/hendricks-not-paying-property-taxes/