Ferris State: A Force for Quality in Authorizing
As an authorizer with 21 public school academies that enroll over 9,200 students, the Ferris State University Charter Schools Office heavily relies on Epicenter to fulfill their mission.
Ferris State originally started authorizing charter schools in the late 1990’s, when the Michigan legislature first allowed charters. Ferris State saw it as an extension of their mission which,
“prepares students for successful careers, responsible citizenship, and lifelong learning. Through its many partnerships and its career-oriented, broad-based education, Ferris serves our rapidly changing global economy and society.”
Ferris State charter schools range from “regular” public school academies, to two strict discipline academies and one online academy, and they have 21 charters located from Muskegon to Detroit and numerous locations in between.
“We take our mission statement very seriously,” said Mindy Britton, the Compliance Auditor/Board Liaison for Ferris’ Charter School Office. “My job is to make sure our academies follow state and federal law and that the contracts between academy boards and Ferris State are followed.”
And that can be a daunting task. Mindy ensures that board members are appointed and reappointed based upon the each academy’s contract. Every board member must go through a background search and vetting process. Ferris State requires board members to achieve professional development activity credits. How does Mindy keep track of every board member from 21 different academies throughout the state?
“Before Epicenter I was tracking many of the board member requirements by hand. Their term in office, whether they had taken an oath of office, whether it was on file, where we were with their background search, and whether we had received all the files were just some of the things I had to keep track of.”
And it wasn’t just Mindy or Ferris State that needed copies of those documents. The individual academies and occasionally the State of Michigan would want access to Mindy’s mountains of paperwork.
“Epicenter saves me hours a week just on board management,” Mindy said. “The other beauty of it is that someone in the academy can look and see that an application hasn’t been received, or someone is up for reappointment—it saves me a tremendous amount of time. It also helps the schools stay on top of their board members.”
While the Board Center in Epicenter is crucial to Mindy, there are other parts of Epicenter that are even more important.
“We extensively use Epicenter’s Compliance Center,” Mindy said. “That piece saves me even more time. For example, a boiler permit—let’s say it expires next Tuesday. Boiler permits are good for three years, so it’s easy to lose track of that. I can put a task in Epicenter and file it and forget it because Epicenter will remind me and the academy that in 30 days that permit expires. That gives everyone piece of mind.”
But the Compliance Center is good for more than permits, it also helps keep academies transparent and accessible to the general public. Mindy uses the Compliance Center for all Open Meetings Act requirements. Academy boards are public entities that must file everything in a transparent manner so it is accessible to the public.
“When everything must be posted, where they are meeting, the agenda, and when the minutes need to be made can be a daunting task, especially for the school. When I get a board calendar for the year, I go into Epicenter, I set up all the tasks associated with board meeting, and Epicenter sends out a reminder for academies.”
Ferris State’s use of Epicenter isn’t limited to Mindy. All 21 academies that Ferris State authorizes not only have access to Epicenter, but they are required to have someone on staff who is knowledgeable about Epicenter and constantly updates it.
“We require every one of our academies to upload required documents. We demand one hundred percent compliance and our schools are ‘graded’ on that. Our requirements are tied to state or federal law and to the academy’s contract. Our requests add value to each academy. We have mid-contracts and reauthorization reviews, and one of the rubrics we use is that they meet all the requirements for Epicenter.”
And Epicenter directly helps the administration of Ferris’ academies. All permits that are required are uploaded into Epicenter, and it’s more than just boiler permits.
“Everyone uses Epicenter to make sure their surroundings are secure and up to date. If they are serving lunch we use Epicenter to make sure they have a health department permit. If they have an elevator that needs to be inspected every 90 days. Epicenter serves as a reminder to schools to get everything up to date and allows administrators to spend more time with teachers and students.”
Ferris State uses Epicenter not only to oversee the safety of each building and the compliance of each board member, they also use it when the State of Michigan shows up for an Assurance and Verification visit.
“A few years ago, the Michigan Department of Education visited us to ensure that we were following various aspects of the law. I heard that, back in the days before Epicenter, it was difficult because they wanted so many documents. This time, when the state visited the office, I could pull up a document in two seconds flat. They asked for an oath of office from an officer at an academy and a conflict of interest document signed by this board member at this other academy. Done. They were really impressed. And I was able to do that because Epicenter serves as an incredibly efficient filing cabinet for us.”
“In fact, the Ferris State auditor came over to do an audit and the same thing happened—I could pull up documents in seconds. And both the state and the auditor had the same recommendation—incorporate more of Epicenter into more of your processes. Before we would prepare for months for an audit. Now it takes seconds. And once a document is in Epicenter it is always there and it just makes life easier.”
“I can’t say enough about Epicenter and the people that work with Epicenter. If I need a change or have a suggestion I get it immediately. Epicenter has made my job a lot easier.”