As critics raised concerns about charter school accountability last year, the president of an Arizona state board with oversight authority over public charter schools privately assailed them as opportunists with a political agenda.
In text messages obtained under public records law, State Board for Charter Schools President Kathy Senseman said unidentified critics "hate all charters" and want to abolish the schools.
Additionally, Senseman disparaged a reporter writing about charter schools as an "egomaniac," and discussed in detail an agenda item before the board with an education policy adviser to Governor Doug Ducey.
"Is there any special direction of how you'd like to handle this?" Senseman asked the governor's aide, Dawn Wallace, after Wallace reached out for information before a highly anticipated board meeting, blurring the line between the governor's office and an independent regulatory board.
Phoenix New Times obtained a year's worth of Senseman's text messages under state public records law, from September 2017 to September 2018, a period of time when the charter board was under intense scrutiny. Last September, the board approved a multimillion-dollar sale of charter schools owned by then-Representative Eddie Farnsworth to a nonprofit entity. Farnsworth, now a state senator, will earn nearly $14 million from the deal, the Arizona Republic reported.
The messages between Senseman and associates show a fixation on Republic reporter Craig Harris' series on charter schools. They reveal behind-the-scenes efforts to spin a narrative and assess the PR fallout when confronted by reports of charter school mismanagement and Farnsworth's payout. And they show how Senseman, tasked with regulating charter schools, privately saw the criticism as a ploy to abolish the schools entirely, rather than as legitimate concerns about what happens to taxpayer dollars granted to charter operators.
Arizona charter schools receive state funding and offer free school to all children in the state, but operate separately from the traditional public school system under the charter board's guidance.
In response to questions, Senseman denied that she has tried to do damage control or shift the blame, and expressed regret for insulting Harris.
"I view my role as the Board President to provide factual information to help policy makers understand the issues when I am asked and when it is necessary to provide information to provide the full set of facts when media stories don’t paint a complete or accurate picture," she said in an emailed statement.
She gave no specific examples of how the reports were inaccurate.
In a group text thread with the board's executive director and a media consultant, Senseman characterized a vague group of critics of the Farnsworth deal as hate-filled and disingenuous.
On September 10, the day the charter board was set to consider the Farnsworth sale in a meeting, a paid media consultant to the board, David Leibowitz, texted Senseman and executive director Ashley Berg with a warning.
"Board is going to be crucified if Farnsworth deal gets approved. Just FYI," Leibowitz wrote.
Senseman wrote back, "Problem is that reporter does not have his facts straight," likely referring to Republic reporter Craig Harris, who was covering the deal at the time. "Surprising I know. Barring new info there is no legitimate reason to deny [the Farnsworth deal.]"
“I wish these guys [could] get their hate straight," Senseman continued. "We hate for-profit charters then when one goes non profit they hate that too. Can people realize soon these guys hate all charters and nothing short of abolishing charters will satisfy them. These guys do not have kids lives in their heart. It’s all political opportunism. It’s a shame.”
It's unclear who was acting opportunistically from Senseman's perspective: the media, education advocates, politicians, or some combination.
Leibowitz urged Senseman to repeatedly state during the meeting, and when interviewed by Harris, that there is no legal reason to turn down the deal. Senseman predicted board members will ask "very substantive questions" during the meeting.
"This is part of a larger narrative going after Farnsworth for voting on education [legislation] as a charter operator," she wrote. "Under the legislative ethics rules there is no conflict of interest. But these guys are pivoting to 'it may be legal but it's not moral' argument."
At the same time, Senseman was fielding questions from Dawn Wallace, Governor Doug Ducey's education policy adviser, regarding the Farnsworth sale.
The day before the board meeting, Wallace texted Senseman a link to a tweet from Harris describing the Farnsworth deal: "Will State Charter Board, filled w Gov @dougducey appointees, help make Rep. @FarnsworthEddie a very rich man?" Harris wrote.
"Have you been briefed about this?" Wallace texted Senseman.
Senseman told her the Farnsworth item was on the consent agenda. "Is there any special direction of how you'd like to handle this?" Senseman asked.
"I don't have any information and haven't been briefed," Wallace wrote. "I think it will get a lot of scrutiny though."
Although the governor appoints members of the State Board for Charter Schools, the board is an ostensibly independent regulatory body with the power to grant and revoke charters.
After mentioning another agenda item dealing with a charter school network that failed to administer a state science exam in violation of the law, Senseman returned to discussing the Farnsworth deal, describing the lawmaker's nonprofit conversion as "by the book."
"Will be interesting to see how people react," Senseman wrote to Wallace. "They don't like for profits but then they don't like them transitioning to non profits either? Guess there's no winning in the charter school world these days."
In an interview, Wallace said she does not routinely discuss agenda items with Senseman and emphasized that she is not engaged with the board's agenda in any way. At the time, she was under the impression that the board's executive director was on maternity leave, so she reached out to Senseman for information on the Farnsworth sale, Wallace said.
Wallace told New Times, "It was an issue I wasn't aware of, and so I was just asking for info. It's my way to say, 'Have you been briefed' – 'do you know anything about it?"
Last month, Wallace was promoted from education policy adviser to special assistant to the governor.
Senseman's texts with Leibowitz show a sense of bitterness at Harris' investigative reporting on charter schools.
The day after the meeting, Leibowitz asked Senseman if she was able to listen to a KJZZ interview featuring Harris.
"Harris is an egomaniac," Senseman replied. "I'm sure he'll tweet a link THe [sic] moment it's available."
"Uh, yes," Leibowitz replied. He told Senseman that the interview seemed to throw her "under the bus" by claiming she cut off questioning by fellow board member Erik Twist to defend Farnsworth.
In another exchange, Leibowitz took a crack at Harris, describing him as “loathed by 100 different communities I can think of, including most of his colleagues."
When asked about his remark, Leibowitz praised Harris' work and described their relationship as "contentious."
"I was probably in a lousy mood," Leibowitz wrote in an email to New Times.
Harris declined to comment on the messages. A request for comment to Farnsworth was not returned.
Senseman is a well-connected lobbyist who works for the Policy Development Group. She has lobbied on behalf of private prison contractor Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and from 1998 to 2008, she served as the government affairs supervisor for utility Southwest Gas. Her husband, Paul Senseman, is also a lobbyist at the Policy Development Group who previously served as deputy chief of staff for communications to former governor Jan Brewer.
She was appointed to the board in 2014 by Brewer. Senseman's term on the board was scheduled to end in January 2018, but she has remained on the board nonetheless.
Last week, in his executive budget, Ducey proposed giving the charter board $786,000 in new funding during the next fiscal year for more staff members to oversee and audit troubled schools. But it's unclear whether Senseman will continue much longer in her position.
A Ducey spokesperson left the door open as to whether Senseman would serve on the board into the future. Patrick Ptak wrote in an email, "Her term has expired and she is serving on a hold-over basis. We are currently considering next steps on appointment to this board."
The governor's proposed executive budget for fiscal year 2020 includes $786,000 for the charter board to hire 10 additional staffers with the goal of improving charter school oversight. According to the budget, the new dollars will enable the board to hire six education project managers, three financial program managers, and one audit program manager.
When asked about Senseman's texts characterizing charter school critics as shameful opportunists in light of the governor's dollars allocated for new charter school oversight, Ptak deferred the question to the charter board.
"We'll be responsible for our statements, our policies, what we put forward," Ptak said in an interview. He pointed to the governor's statements expressing support for more charter school accountability.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Senseman said her remarks referred to broad-based misinformed criticism of charter schools, but she did not identify specific critics.
"This was not directed at any one individual or group," Senseman said in a statement. "It was meant as a collective 'they' as the charter community and especially our board was taking much criticism from multiple fronts. Much of which lacked the full context or understanding of the law."
She said she regrets writing that Harris is an "egomaniac."
"I do regret making that private comment. At the time I had never met Mr Harris and was relying on information that had been shared with me," Senseman said. "I’ve come to know Mr Harris and find him to be an upfront and honest broker. We’ve had many lively discussions. I welcome his questions and the conversation he has created on charter oversight."