Is the Head of Phoenix Charter School Metro Arts Institute Getting Too Creative With the Rules?
New Times Illustration/Source Imagery: Shutterstock.com

Is the Head of Phoenix Charter School Metro Arts Institute Getting Too Creative With the Rules?

The photograph is hard to look at. In it, a middle-aged man wearing a hooded black cape kneels before a teenaged girl. In one hand, he clutches a cloth; his other hand rests on the girl’s feet. She looks sad, and a little scared.

The man in the photograph — which showed up on social media in spring 2016 — is Matthew Baker, the girl’s poetry teacher and the head of Metropolitan Arts Institute, the Phoenix charter school.

Foot-washing is all in a day’s work at Metro Arts, where Baker, who’s also the founder of the seventh-through-12th-grade school and its board president, runs around dressed as a wizard. Who, in his spare time, has operated an online spiritual school offering “the transformational river of life energy in which spiritual development unfolds.” Where the building manager and his wife, the school’s director of operations, live on campus and once raised money for the school by hosting an after-hours rave party complete with promotions from pot dispensaries.

All of this is apparently fine with Metro’s board of directors, whose members include faculty members and the founder, and one of whom appears to live out of the country.

In Arizona, there are two kinds of public schools: traditional and charter. Traditional schools are governed by boards of directors elected by voters who live within a school district’s boundaries. Charter schools are governed by boards whose members are appointed — sometimes by the person who runs the charter school.

And that’s a setup for plenty of conflicts of interest, nepotism, and secrecy.

At Metro Arts, Baker’s wife manages the school’s finances and teaches art; the board secretary’s husband is on the payroll as the building manager.

Both traditional and charter boards are governed by Arizona’s Open Meeting Laws. But a charter school’s corporate board can discuss school financial matters in a closed meeting, per Arizona’s charter schools law.

Matt Baker is his own boss, owner of a school overseen by state legislation that allows him to hire his wife to spend a $2 million annual budget to oversee the safety and education of about 250 kids.

“Where charters are concerned, the Arizona Legislature doesn’t care how the sausage gets made,” says Chris Thomas, associate executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, a private nonprofit group that offers training and legal advice to traditional public schools. “All they care is that the sausage gets made.”

A group of former Metro Arts teachers do care about how the sausage is getting made.

In late June, these teachers filed a seven-page complaint with the state charter board. Their anonymous grievance requests all-new management, rails against Metro’s “completely insular structure of the administration and board,” its lack of transparency, odd behaviors that “escalate in a consequence-free environment,” and “vast liberties … taken with both authority and public funds.”

Complaining about those “vast liberties” got one of these former teachers — artist Sue Chenoweth — fired last year from her job teaching visual art at Metro, she claims.

“They knew I had cancer and needed the health insurance,” Chenoweth says. “So much for loyalty.”

When Koryn Woodward Wasson, another esteemed local artist who taught drawing at Metro, objected to what she perceived to be Metro’s lack of transparency and treatment of Chenoweth, she says she received an email asking her to clean out her classroom and return her keys at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

Afraid of a similar fate, those still employed at Metro won’t talk about their involvement — if any — with the complaint, which alleges, among other things, that

• the head of school hasn’t been evaluated in 10 years;

• no attempts by the school have been made to fundraise to “support teachers and school programs”;

• Baker spent $3,000 on a massage chair for his own personal use;

• he collects bonuses as a teacher and as an administrator, but doesn’t share that wealth with his faculty;

• board meetings are scheduled at times when no faculty are available to attend;

• minutes from those meetings aren’t readily available; and

• Metro teachers are paid below standard pay rates and haven’t had raises in years.

The complaint also requests structural changes — saying that teachers should have input on assembling a new board of directors that isn’t made up of friends and family of the head of school, one that invites them to meetings held in a room accessible to the public. There’s also a request for a parent-teacher organization to assist with marketing and fundraising for the school.

An early draft of the complaint was brought to New Times in May 2016. Since that time, Baker — in interviews conducted in person, on the phone, and via email — has refuted much of the contents of the complaint, which he says is the work of a single unhappy ex-employee. It’s “riddled with inaccuracies, half-truths, and leadership opinions from a former teacher who has never led a charter school and knows nothing about doing so,” he says. (Baker declined to be photographed for this story.)

Yes, Baker admits to purchasing a pricey massage chair, but denies it’s exclusively for his own use. He says that yes, he did attend an expensive leadership retreat, because that’s what heads of school should do. He owns up to letting staff live on the third floor, but says they’re there to provide security. He did not, he says, cancel faculty meetings at the last minute or neglect to post public meetings as required by the charter board.

Baker won’t have to defend hosting a sexy rave at his school when he responds to the charter board — that complaint is not mentioned among the grievances. Neither is there a reference to Wisdom Stream, Baker’s online “spiritual school.” Nothing is made of the fact that Metro’s faculty handbook warns against expressing concerns.

“We are all responsible for calling people on venting and complaining if we witness it as a habitual problem,” the handbook explains.

The complaint makes no mention of the foot-washing incident, either.

“That was three years ago,” Baker says. “I mentioned the ancient act of foot-washing to my poetry class, and they’d never heard of it. I wanted to make a point about how important it is for someone in authority to lower themselves before you, so I did the foot-washing.”

Baker says he is sorry to hear that the foot-washing photograph wound up on social media and that his student might have been embarrassed. But he’s amused by rumors that he makes curriculum decisions based on tarot card readings. He says he wasn’t laughing last year when students brought him photographs of kids vaping tobacco in a new teacher’s class.

“She was fired,” Baker says. “We have to be careful. At an arts-based charter, we’re working double-time not to be seen as lunatics.”

Then why is Baker parading around campus in a sparkly black cape? “It’s a cloak,” he corrects. “I put it on to remind people that I, too, am an artist and a creative, not some guy in a suit and tie.”

He pauses. “It’s not like I wear the cloak to parent meetings or anything.”

Is the Head of Phoenix Charter School Metro Arts Institute Getting Too Creative With the Rules?
Randi Lynn Beach

Jim Hall doesn’t think much will come of the complaint filed against Metro.

“Good luck to them,” says Hall, who runs an aggressive, one-man watchdog organization called Arizonans for Charter School Accountability.

Charters that want to cheat have found their worst enemy in Hall, a former Washington district school principal of 23 years. He founded his watchdog project after attending a board meeting of the local charter school his nephew was attending. Having written an ASU doctoral dissertation on charter schools in 2006, Hall was a expert on their benefits and shortcomings.

“The meeting lasted 10 minutes,” says Hall, whose website, azcsa.org, includes a spreadsheet of all Arizona charter spending for last year.

“They covered absolutely nothing, and I realized things had gotten significantly worse at charters in the 10 years since my dissertation.”

Today, Hall devotes his retirement to policing local charters from a tiny downtown office. He makes spreadsheets showing what each school spends on students, management fees, and teacher salaries, and posts them on his website.

“I’m the Lone Ranger,” Hall says. “No other agency compiles this data. The Legislature doesn’t know, the government doesn’t know, the charter board doesn’t know how this money’s being spent or what’s going on during school hours.”

That’s because the laws that govern charter schools foster a lack of transparency, Hall says. Charter boards can meet privately, and their financial reporting is less stringent, so it’s easy for a charter to hide how it’s spending tax dollars.

Where a public school principal might be canned for hiring a family member or appointing his wife and faculty to the school board, a charter principal (who might also be the owner of the school) can hire and appoint anyone he wants. Arizona charter law says if the charter principal wants to hold private board meetings, that’s perfectly okay, too.

Established here in 1994 after a failed education-voucher plan that would have allowed state tax funds to pay private school tuitions, charters are public schools expected to admit all the students they have room for. Excess enrollment is typically handled by a lottery system that randomly chooses new students.

Arizona leads the nation in charter school growth, with 532 of them in operation. Fifteen percent of our pre-college students attend charters, which are bankrolled by general tax revenues rather than the state property taxes that fund public schools. Charter schools are typically owned by nonprofit charter holders created by corporations; these charter holders own the school’s land, buildings, and teaching materials, while the corporation manages the school’s personnel, curriculum, funds, and acquisitions.

Phoenix’s “good charters,” as Hall calls them, offer an accelerated curriculum built around fast-tracking smart kids into better universities (like Vista College Prep), or an arts-focused program for creative kids (like Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics) or emphasize agriculture (as does the Arizona Agribusiness chain).

Better-known charters include Metro’s closest neighbor, Arizona School for the Arts, with its much-lauded performance art program. And the BASIS chain scored the top five spots in U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of Arizona’s best schools this past April. North Pointe Prep posts test scores that exceed state standards. Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center this year added a sixth campus; nearly a quarter of its graduates complete associate’s degrees before graduating high school.

Arizona loses a half-dozen or so charters each year; 15 have packed it in since 2015. Low enrollment killed Mosaica Prep and Concordia; Pepe Barron ran out of money late last year. Dogged by breach-of-charter lawsuits, Mesa’s Hillcrest Academy went belly up the day before school opened last year.

On the other hand, Metropolitan Arts Institute appears to be doing well. Founded in the late 1990s, Metro purchased its Seventh Avenue location, a former office building, two years later with $450,000 in grant money from the Argosy Foundation, an arts-advocacy investor. The school is home to 55 junior high and 195 high school students, compared with public high schools that are typically 10 times as large. According to its website, Metro’s average class size is about 30 kids for academic classes, and 15 to 20 for arts-based classes.

The school has scored Department of Education “A” ratings in recent years, suggesting its students are learning something. (That letter-rating system, tethered to standardized-testing results, was retired in 2014, but some charters still post letter scores on their websites.)

And while Metro doesn’t have an Advanced Placement program, it does offer creative kids the chance to focus on dance, theater, and visual art. Like many charters, Metro has zero tolerance for bullying, essential to creative kids who like to fly their freak flag.

“But schools like Metro benefit from a legal lack of transparency that can hurt the kids it’s supposed to be teaching,” Jim Hall says.

While public school boards are vetted and voted on by parents and faculty, charter boards are appointed and, like the board at Metro Arts, can include employees, relatives of the owner, and others with conflicts of interest.

Those conflicted board members are allowed to meet in private. Arizona’s open meeting law requires that charters post all public board meetings on school websites and a public place as an invitation to the community. But their corporate meetings aren’t public and can be held behind closed doors.

Thanks to an Arizona law introduced in 2000, a charter board is responsible only for making policy. That leaves day-to-day operations like setting curriculum, spending tax dollars, and hiring and firing staff up to the charter’s corporate board, or to a management company hired by the charter’s corporate board, which is allowed by law to meet privately.

“So a charter can hold a public board meeting, and there’s next to nothing on the agenda,” Chris Thomas says. “You know they’re making decisions about budgets and curriculum in corporate board meetings, outside the eyes and ears of faculty and the community. We demand transparency from public schools. With charters, we can’t.”

Good luck finding those required public meeting notices, Hall says. He filed a complaint with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office in June, stating that 113 charters failed to post notices of board meetings in public or on their websites last year. Metro Arts is on the list.

Charters aren’t entirely off the radar. They’re required to file an annual budget with the Arizona Department of Education each July, and a financial report each October detailing income and assets and whether the charter is solvent — but nothing about classroom spending.

An annual audit is filed each year with the charter school board, but Hall insists no one is reading these reports. In fact, an email to Hall from that organization’s executive assistant, Bianca Ulibarri, admits as much: “The Board does not utilize the information contained in those documents in its oversight,” she writes, referring to charter audits.

Conversely, district schools must account for every penny in quarterly budgets. Their reports are reviewed by the state auditor general and published on its website. Charter audits are available on the state charter board website, but they’re hard to find and slim on details beyond whether the school is in the black. Charters are also exempt from the Unified System of Financial Records, an accounting guideline that polices public school spending.

That lack of transparency can lead to bad financial behavior, says Hall, who’s been lobbying to get the auditor general to monitor charter spending. “They’re not required to tell us what they’re doing with that money, and the Legislature isn’t concerned with over-spending, or fraud, or where the money’s going. They don’t care. Ultimately, it’s the kids who get hurt by these messy agendas.”

Sue Chenoweth, former Metro teacher, says she was fired for complaining about the school’s lack of transparency.
Sue Chenoweth, former Metro teacher, says she was fired for complaining about the school’s lack of transparency.
Randi Lynn Beach

Filed on June 26, the seven-page complaint against Metro Arts alternates between allegations of misspending (like bonus money going to Baker but not to teachers) and misbehavior (Baker fails to attend school events) and the sort of sour grapes griping one would expect from fired employees.

After speaking at length to New Times about how he planned to respond to the complaint, which he received from “an anonymous source,” Baker backpedaled, claiming several days later that the complaint had never been filed with the charter board and therefore didn’t exist. A call to the charter board confirmed its receipt of the document, as well as the deadline to respond given to Baker via email.

While many of the complaints collected by former teachers are difficult to prove — like that Metro isn’t performing required fire drills, or that Baker works far below his reported 40-hour work week — some of the items are real eyebrow-raisers. Like that Metro faculty “is routinely told that there will be no raises, that Arizona simply does not value education” and that “the Head of School insists that there’s no money for education in the state.” Or that teachers receive “no substantive training” and that training typically lasts “the length of a faculty meeting.” Teacher performance, the complaint claims, is not being evaluated. The renovations on Lisa Starry’s on-campus Scorpius Dance studio were paid for in part with public funds, the report states, yet students must pay to use it. (Baker denies this last part.)

Starry did not respond to New Times’ repeated email and telephone requests for comment.

Two entire pages are devoted to specific complaints about Baker. The complaint alleges that most of the students haven’t met him, and that he gets weekly massages during school hours. The accusers don’t like the fact that Baker’s wife is the school’s finance director and prepares the auditor’s report.

Perhaps the most shocking allegation is that Baker collects what’s called “301 money,” a sales-tax funding stream created in 2000 by Proposition 301 to reward underpaid teachers. Prop 301 money is earmarked for teachers who teach more than half the school day; Baker lists only two poetry classes, the complaint says, among his administrative duties. (He calls this allegation “bizarre,” and says that “at Metro, every full-time teacher in good standing gets the same 301 bonus.”) Not only does Baker not receive 301 money, he says, but he isn’t paid for teaching, only for his administrative duties.

He goes on to say Metro’s salaries are in line with those of other charter schools, and that he was “underpaid by industry standards by an average of 30 percent a year for the first 12 years of Metro’s existence.”

According to the complaint, Baker earned $116,617 in 2015.

Baker dismisses the idea that he’s not been evaluated in a decade, claiming he’s reviewed annually by his administrators, a staff that includes his wife. Asked if meetings are held when teachers can’t attend or are inadequately posted, and if minutes from those meetings are kept from staff, Baker says, “We have mandatory audits of our finances and our operations every year.”

Baker does not dispute the purchase of the $3,000 massage chair. The chair is available to the staff any time they want to use it, he says, adding that his weekly on-campus massage is not paid for by the school.

As for secret meetings, Metro doesn’t meet separately with its corporate board, because there isn’t one. Baker himself holds the charter, and not a for-profit company as with many other charter schools. “If we go into a closed session during a public meeting, we publicly state we’re going to do that. That’s happened two or three times in 20 years, and only when we’re discussing disciplining students. We’re not hiding money talk from the public, we’re protecting the privacy of our students.”

According to Metro Arts board meeting minutes, Baker is both the head of school and its board president; board secretary Lisa Starry is the school’s director of operations; Baker’s wife, Betsy Rosenmiller, manages the school’s finances and teaches art.

Until recently, vice president Chelsea Sage Gaberdiel’s husband taught math and science at Metro. Board member Kimberly French lives in Germany and attends meetings “telephonically,” according to the complaint.

About stacking his board with faculty and putting his wife in charge of the school’s finances, Baker is unrepentant.

“We’re within charter law,” he says. “I can see where a conflict of interest could be perceived. That’s why we work with an auditor. Every purchase order is signed off on by an outside controller. Charters can be held in very close hands. You’re being evaluated by the people closest to you.”

Metro’s board may not be all that close. Baker is unclear about board member French’s whereabouts. “She was moving back to America last time I talked to her,” Baker says. “I think she’s in Seattle.” According to board minutes, Baker last spoke to French at Metro’s June 22 board meeting.

Director of Admissions Randi Kent tells New Times she thinks French still lives in Germany, but can’t recall her name. “I think it’s some form of Kimberly,” she says. “I may have met her once, years ago.” Kent is equally unclear about whether there is any conflict of interest in Metro’s board structure, a thought she finds amusing. “I don’t think there are any employees on the board,” she says. (In fact, there are two.)

One of them is operations director Lisa Starry, who lives on campus with her husband, Metro building manager David Starry. The building is not zoned for residential use, according to city records. But Baker says the school isn’t breaking any laws.

“Those two are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “They’re our security and maintenance crew, and the auditor says since they’re always on the clock, they get to live there. If the roof leaks, or an alarm goes off, they’re there. Our building is downtown, and we have a lot of vagrants. We need 24-hour security.”

The third floor is also the home of Scorpius Dance, Lisa Starry’s modern dance troupe, which, according to the complaint, resided there for free until very recently. (Starry now pays $250 a month, also according to the complaint. Starry did not respond to requests confirming these figures.)

“If we rent the third floor to any for-profit business, we have to pay property taxes on the whole building,” Baker explains. “We have Scorpius up there, and they’re always looking for ways to use the top floor to make extra income for us.”

Last year, Scorpius hosted a Great Gatsby-themed after-hours rave at the school, where a pot dispensary called the Marijuana Doctor offered T-shirts and caps for sale, and revelers posed for photos wearing leather fetishwear, smoking cigarettes, and making out for the camera. The event wasn’t intended for students, although some parents found out and were reportedly alarmed. Baker vetoed future raves.

“After we saw the images, and because of the vibe it gave off, we decided Metro wasn’t the right setting for a rave,” says Baker, who’s working on his response to the grievances, which is due to the charter board by July 26.

Maple Solstice says she won’t go back to Metro.
Maple Solstice says she won’t go back to Metro.
Randi Lynn Beach

Sophomore Ella Weierstall doesn’t know about charter school politics. What she does know is she’s having a blast at Metro Arts.

“At my old school, everyone was afraid to express themselves. At Metro, you can be weird and it’s fine. Everyone is unique. The teachers are enthusiastic. I actually look forward to going to school.”

Ella’s dad, Uwe Weierstall, is a research professor in ASU’s physics department. He’s not concerned about charters’ lack of financial transparency, or Metro’s unusual approach to education.

“At Ella’s age, it’s important that she find connections to other people who are like herself, that she be happy and enjoy herself. She’s getting that, and I’m pleased.”

Valerie Revering agrees. Her eldest son was doing well academically at a local public high school, but not so well socially. She enrolled him at Metro Arts, where he blossomed. “He’d always been funny, and he was able to get onstage at Metro and realize he is funny.”

She transferred her other kids to Metro, where they also thrived. “I loved Metro because classes were small,” Revering says. “Fifty in each grade level got the kids more attention than 500 in each grade level.”

Revering has no complaints with Baker, or with his school. For a long time, neither did K-K McLaughlin.

“We wrote off a lot of Matt’s behavior as artistic quirkiness,” says McLaughlin, who taught at Metro for three years after graduating in 2011.

McLaughlin, who has piercings on her face, stretched ears, and is openly gay, believes she was “too queer” for Metro Arts. She says she objected when Baker asked her not to tell her students she’s gay and, she claims, her contract wasn’t renewed in 2015.

“Now that I work at a charter where you have to be accountable, I have some perspective,” she says of her job at Arizona Collegiate High in Phoenix.

Former teacher Sue Chenoweth has a lot of great memories of Metro. “We had fabulous teachers, we were winning awards right and left,” she recalls. “Teaching those special, talented kids was amazing. I want to see it be that way again.”

She isn’t afraid to admit she worked on the complaint against Metro. “I have nothing left to lose,” says Chenoweth, who admits she wasn’t the easiest employee.

“I was late a lot the year before they fired me,” she says. “I had cancer and I felt lousy all the time because of the treatment. I’m already a little crazy, but that really messed up my head for a while.”

It wasn’t her habitual tardiness or the time off she needed to recover from cancer treatments that got Chenoweth canned after 12 years with Metro, she believes.

“It was because I complained about how unprofessional my school was becoming. This was not a welcomed message, let’s just say. If you’re a teacher who questions stuff at Metro, your contract doesn’t get renewed.”

When Chenoweth posted her concerns about being fired on Facebook, her page lit up with cries of injustice from students, colleagues, and well-wishers. “People were saying, ‘Those kids were your life, you’re a famous artist, what were they thinking?’” Chenoweth remembers. “I felt a little less nuts knowing it wasn’t just me who thought I got ripped off for blowing the whistle. Metro claims I quit. I got fired.”

But not before Chenoweth received an astonishing email from Baker asking her to be more grateful for her job at Metro. “It is imperative that you appreciate what is being done,” he wrote. “If you do not, we quite simply will not do it,” referring to the notion of inviting Chenoweth back for another year.

Baker offered Chenoweth’s classes to artist Koryn Woodward Wasson, who’d taught art at Metro since 2006. Wasson declined, and says she told Baker that Chenoweth was her friend, and she didn’t feel comfortable taking over her friend’s classes. After that, Wasson was offered a new schedule, this time teaching only one class. “I couldn’t make a living on that,” she remembers. “The class took place the only day of the week I was not available to work, which Matt Baker knew.”

Wasson is teaching beginning drawing classes at Gateway Community College these days. She also worked on the charter board complaint against Metro Arts. “We’re doing it for the students,” she says. “So many of them are unhappy.”

Maple Solstice was one of those unhappy Metro students. She is 17, and has one credit left before she graduates from school.

“I was reprimanded for calling Matt Baker an asshole on Facebook,” she says. “But we weren’t studying poetry in his poetry class. We did, like, one poem per quarter. There was a lot of sitting in a circle while Matt compared you to an animal and then talked about how he was a wizard.”

Solstice was called into Baker’s office and told she was too negative and unhappy, she remembers. “I’m a teenager,” she says, pausing for effect. “Of course I’m negative and unhappy!”

Solstice was asked to sign a behavioral contract forbidding her from saying negative things about the school.
“If I violate it, they will expel me,” she says.

“During the meeting, Matt told me he loved me and was willing to forgive me,” she says. “At the time I wanted to stay at Metro, so I went along with everything. But I’m thinking, ‘Why is the head of the school telling me he loves me?’”

Solstice seems happy to break her no-bitching contract with Metro. She plans to attend another charter this fall, then head off early to college.

Chenoweth is sorry to hear about Maple Solstice. “Our school was really great,” she says, “with all these talented kids. I want to see it be that way again.”

Ella Weierstall’s dad is surprised to know about problems at Metro. “But charter schools are very different from public schools,” Uwe points out. “There are benefits to sending your child to a place where they can express themselves creatively.

“And if there are drawbacks, well. In the end, no one is forcing parents to send their kids to a charter school.”

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