Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks’ controversial charter school

Great opportunity for kids, or an effort to destroy public education?

Diane Hendricks, chief executive officer of ABC Supply Co., smiles during a company meeting at a hotel in Rosemont, Illinois, U.S. on Wednesday, March 4, 2015. Hendricks, whose ABC Supply is based in Beloit, Wis., was
Diane Hendricks, chief executive officer of ABC Supply Co., shown at a company meeting at a hotel in Rosemont, Illinois, on March 4, 2015. Hendricks, whose ABC Supply is based in Beloit, Wis., was Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker's biggest individual political benefactor. (Photo by John McCormick/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Diane Hendricks, the Beloit billionaire caught on film in 2011 urging former Gov. Scott Walker to make Wisconsin a “completely red” “right-to-work” state, has a new project — a charter school that will focus on serving low-income students in her adopted hometown.

The Lincoln Academy, which received conditional approval from the Office of Educational Opportunity (OEO) at the University of Wisconsin System on May 15, is already breaking ground for a new facility set to open in the fall of 2021. The UW’s OEO will make a final decision whether to authorize the charter school in the next several months — by September 2020.

The school ultimately plans to hold 700 students from 4-year-old kindergarten through high school — representing about one-tenth of the Beloit public school district.

“It started with realizing, as a business leader, that people did not want to move to Beloit because of our schools,” Hendricks explained to radio host Tim Bremel on Beloit/Janesville’s WCLO news, talk & sports station on Jan. 2. 

“We’ve been looking at this for about five years — just how bad our schools were in terms of performance and what our children were not receiving in a good education,” Hendricks added.

Beloit 200, a group of local business leaders led by Hendricks, created the nonprofit organization Kids First Beloit, which applied for the charter.

“Beloit is an amazing little city. People are profoundly loyal to Beloit. It’s lovely. The community is coming together to start this school,” says Lisa Furseth, executive director of the Hendricks Family Foundation, which has pledged to be the lead donor to the school.

But some community members charge that the school lacks both accountability and community support, that it duplicates existing public-school programs and that it will drain needed resources from the Beloit school district. 

‘Divide and Conquer’

Clinton Anderson (photo courtesy of Beloit City Council)
Clinton Anderson (Photo courtesy of Beloit City Council)

“She’s now trying to dismantle public education. It feels like Act 10 coming back,” says Clinton Anderson, vice president of the Beloit City Council. 

Referring to the documentary film clip in which then-Gov. Walker told Hendricks that Act 10 — which ended most collective bargaining rights for public employees — would “divide and conquer” unions, Anderson says, “This is part of ‘divide and conquer’— disband public unions and then siphon more dollars away from the local school district.”

Anderson and some members of the Beloit School Board object to the fact that the Lincoln Academy, as an independent or “non-instrumentality” charter school, won’t have oversight from the Beloit school board. Yet, when the school reaches its planned capacity of 700 students, it will siphon away 10% of the district’s budget.

Kirah Zeilinger showing off her WEAC union sticker
Kirah Zeilinger (Photo courtesy of WEAC region 6)

“Ten percent of our budget is huge,” says Kirah Zeilinger of the Beloit Education Association. “Instead of working together to do something great for all of our kids, it’s dividing resources so some people will get them and some won’t.”

School board member Megan Miller thinks the fact that the Lincoln Academy describes itself as a public school is confusing. “The Hendricks Family Foundation has the means to create their own private school, but instead they’re choosing to fund it with public dollars,” says Miller. “Real public schools have elected boards so ultimately the district is accountable to the community.”

“It feels like Madison is facilitating a work-around,” adds Miller. The UW’s Office of Educational Opportunity, she says, is “taking away the elected voice of the community, potentially going against the majority desire of the community,” by acting as the charter authorizer for the Beloit school.

The OEO did not respond to requests for a response to that criticism, except to point to comments on the Lincoln charter application, some of which echo critics’ charges about lack of community engagement and support. (Areas of concern cited by OEO include a focus group survey the school submitted that had only 48 respondents who were not necessarily representative of the district, a communication plan with families that “appears stringent and unidirectional,” a top-heavy administration and a discipline policy that “appears highly punitive.”)

But proponents of Lincoln Academy point to the Beloit school district’s low test scores and a series of scandals, and say it’s time for something different.

Pastor Dannie Evans (second from right) with Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) and his family after giving the invocation at the inauguration of the state Assembly in January 2019.
Pastor Dannie Evans (second from right) with Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton) and his family after giving the invocation at the inauguration of the state Assembly in January 2019.

“It’s like, OK, do we keep dumping money into a failed system?” says Pastor Dannie Evans, who lives in Beloit and is the minister at the House of God Church in Janesville. “We have to do something. And if that means bringing competition for the school district to do better in order to keep the kids in the district, then let’s do that.”

Beloit’s struggling school district 

It’s no secret that the Beloit school district has had a rough time lately.

In January, the school board voted unanimously to accept former superintendent Stanley Munro’s resignation in the wake of multiple accusations against him of bullying and intimidating staff, retaliating against those who complained and withholding information from records requests. 

A high-poverty, majority-minority school district, Beloit public schools serve a population that includes 71.4% economically disadvantaged students, about 56% of whom are African American or Latino, according to Department of Public Instruction (DPI) data.

On the 2018-19 DPI school report card the district earned a total score of 59.7 for student achievement, academic growth and other factors, which put it in the category the state labels “meets few expectations.”

Racism in the district 

According to the most recent annual school district diversity report, Beloit’s professional educators are 85.96% white. That report was cited in January by the local leaders of color who pointed to an exodus of Black teachers and administrators over the last year.

“People are beginning to feel like there’s a current within this district that wants to push out minorities,” Dorothy Harrell, president of the local chapter of the NAACP told Channel 3000.

Dorothy Harrell, president of the Beloit chapter of the NAACP (photo courtesy of Dorothy Harrell)
Dorothy Harrell, president of the Beloit chapter of the NAACP. (Photo courtesy of Dorothy Harrell)

“The Beloit public schools have gotten a black eye recently and deservedly so,” Harrell tells Wisconsin Examiner, “because of the way they have treated minority staff. Almost 20 were dismissed last year. Some were well loved community people.”

“But we have a new board now,” Harrell adds. “I’m hoping they will be better recruiters.

“We had a rough year with our school district,” concedes Beloit school board member Megan Miller. “Some people are angry, because we’ve had pretty inconsistent district leadership.”

Still, Miller says, after elections that turned over three seats on the board, and a new interim superintendent in place, “the district is turning around.”

Megan Miller (photo courtesy of Megan Miller)
Megan Miller (Photo courtesy of Megan Miller)

In a heated exchange with Lincoln Academy proponents at a forum organized by the League of Women Voters, Miller pointed out that Rock County, which includes Beloit, has the highest Adverse Childhood Experiences score of any county in Wisconsin — a measure of early trauma. “You are splintering the resources that we have to be responsive to the many, many children” who suffer from violence, instability and other ACES indicators, she said.

‘Beautifying the economy’

Hendricks, whose $7 billion net worth landed her in the top spot on Forbes’ list of the richest self-made women in America in 2019 (Oprah Winfrey was No. 10), has transformed the city of Beloit through her philanthropy. 

New York Times business reporter Alexandra Stevenson describes how Hendricks created space for start-ups downtown in an airy glass-and-brick building that once housed the Beloit Foundry, moved the historic library, created a new performing arts center, bought and revived the city’s dying country club and even helped found a Beloit international film festival. Hendricks “scooped up nearly every building on a downtown block and knocked each one down, making way for a sushi restaurant, a high-quality burger joint and modern apartments with marble countertops and exposed-brick walls,” Stevenson reports.

Downtown Beloit (photo by Luther Wu for the Examiner)
Downtown Beloit. (Photo by Luther Wu for the Examiner)

“It looks like we’re beautifying the city,” Hendricks told her. “But we’re really beautifying the economy.”

Lincoln Academy could be seen as another way Hendricks is “beautifying the economy” both by attracting new employees to the area and by training the local workforce of the future.

Through her company ABC Supply, the largest roofing distributor in the U.S., and the Hendricks Holding Company, with a portfolio of businesses in manufacturing, construction, real estate and distribution, Hendricks employs thousands of people in Beloit, a city of only 35,000.

Her influence in the community is hard to overstate. 

“It’s like Pottersville,” says Miller, invoking the wealthy Mr. Potter from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

“It’s hard, when you live here, to say anything bad about Diane,” says Beloit College professor Lisa Anderson-Levy. “People are like, well, she didn’t have to spend her money on anything. We should be grateful.”

The Phoenix Building on Grand Ave. in Beloit with the Hendricks name emblazoned at the top
The Phoenix Building on Grand Ave. in Beloit with the Hendricks name emblazoned at the top. (Photo by Luther Wu for the Examiner)

Still, Anderson-Levy is uneasy about Hendricks’ overall impact on the town, which she sees creating a separate, gentrified Beloit on top of the old, industrial city, many of whose African American residents came north during the Great Migration to work in factories that are now closed. 

When Anderson-Levy ran for the Beloit school board she says she was surprised by how many local residents she met who had never been to the downtown.

“Our downtown is beautiful now and I love that,” she says.” But how can we spread that out in ways that are benefiting the whole community?”

Hendricks is also a big player in Republican politics. Her $510,000 donation to Scott Walker in 2012 made her his top donor in the recall election, helping him stay in office and fend off the effort to oust him after Act 10. Hendricks’ Reform America Fund super PAC was responsible for more than half of the presidential-focused political ads on TV in Wisconsin during the general election of 2016, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The ads, which focused on attacking Hillary Clinton, helped Trump narrowly win the state.

Some locals see an inherent contradiction between Hendricks’ rightwing politics and the goal of helping local kids.

“You want to build back a middle class you destroyed. You did away with unions in Wisconsin. Teachers have some of the lowest starting salaries in the nation here now,” says Harrell, who used to work for the National Education Association in Washington, DC, before moving back to Beloit. “That’s all part of collective bargaining in Wisconsin. So you destroy all that, then you build a school to connect kids with jobs. . . . what about kids who are interested in being educators?” 

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Harrell emphasizes that she is speaking for herself, not the Beloit chapter of the NAACP, since her organization has not taken a position on the charter school. “We can only hope it helps some kids,” she adds.

The Lincoln Academy’s approach

In its application to the OEO, the Lincoln Academy lays out its mission to serve “scholars that reflect the diverse community of Beloit.” 

“The Lincoln Academy will prove what’s possible when driven students are given the right combination of school culture, strong academics, a mission-driven staff, and a clear path to college or career and a choice-filled life,” the application states.

Construction has already begun on the site where the planned Lincoln Academy will be located. A Kohl's store has been demolished at the former Beloit Mall, now the Eclipse Center, owned by Hendricks Properties.
The site where the planned Lincoln Academy will be located at the former Beloit Mall, now the Eclipse Center, on land donated by Hendricks Commercial Properties, (Photo by Luther Wu for the Examiner).

The school, which has plans for a 3-story, 112,000 square foot building on land donated by Hendricks Commercial Properties, has a particular mission to serve students from the low-income Merrill neighborhood, near where it will be located.

The “three pillars” of the school will be a rigorous focus on academic skills starting in the early grades, career exploration that will be worked into every aspect of the curriculum, and character development.

Hendricks CareerTek, an organization that connects students with job training opportunities through local employers in the community, will help with mentorship and job training.

The idea of starting the charter school, Furseth says, came out of years of conversations with community leaders in Beloit and educational experts across the country, reflecting on the question, “How do we improve our educational landscape?”

“What you see in Beloit is that parents who are able are making the choice with their feet,” says Furseth. “We hope it will provide a model to demonstrate that all of our kids are capable of high-level learning.” 

‘My kids weren’t going there, whatever I had to do’

Pastor Dannie Evans of Janesville's House of God Church in 2009 (photo courtesy of the Janesville Gazette)
Pastor Dannie Evans of Janesville’s House of God Church in 2009. (Photo courtesy of the Janesville Gazette)

One of Lincoln Academy’s biggest boosters is Pastor Dannie Evans, who is part of a group of community leaders Kids First recruited to join the charter school’s launch committee.

Evans grew up in the Merrill neighborhood. “I made a conscious decision because I wasn’t a great reader and I went to Merrill,” he says, “so I knew my kids weren’t going to go there, whatever I had to do.”

Evans sent his children to Rock County Christian School. He and his wife delivered newspapers to help cover the tuition.

Eight of his nine children attended the Christian school, and five went to Beloit College and on to careers in medicine, social work and business, says Evans.

“I knew that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given them a chance — a smaller classroom size, and things like that,” he adds. “Nothing against the teachers at Merrill. … Our reading and math scores — what struck me and made me sad is it’s the same as it was over 35-40 years ago when I attended.”

Evans’ work running a mentorship program for troubled youth and his day job in the juvenile justice system make him worry about the school-to-prison pipeline, he says. “If a child, a Black male, is not at reading level by third grade, there’s a connection between that and going to prison.”

He hopes that Lincoln Academy will “do what they said it’s going to do, and make sure that all kids are at reading level by third grade.”

‘Close them. I don’t care.’

Gaby Rojas in a red shirt, seated at a table
Gaby Rojas says the Beloit School District has not done a good job of serving Spanish-speaking parents. (Photo courtesy of Gaby Rojas)

Another parent who has chosen to vote with her feet by bailing out of the Beloit public schools is Gaby Rojas, an English as a Second Language teacher. 

“Two of my children were in the Beloit school system, and I pulled them out and put them at the Rock County Christian School, and I saw tremendous growth for both of them,” she says. Rojas, who helped organize a forum to promote the Lincoln Academy to Beloit’s Spanish-speaking community, says she and other Spanish-speaking parents have found school district staff unresponsive to their concerns, and were annoyed when the district hired Spanish teachers from Spain. 

“Instead of investing in teachers from Spain, why don’t you invest in us?” she asks, noting that she and another Mexican-American parent she knows had tried in vain to get teaching jobs in the district. After working in the district as a paraprofessional for two years while she was getting her degree, Rojas says she went to her principal “and he was like, Gaby, I love you, I know the parents adore you, but it’s not up to me.” Her application was forwarded up the chain, she says, but she never heard anything.

Rojas has high hopes that the Lincoln Academy will hire more diverse staff and especially bilingual teachers. 

As for the argument that the charter school will harm the public schools by drawing off needed funds, she says, “If they’re not doing their job, and the scores are very low, and the graduation scores are terrible, then close them. I don’t care.”

Parents are tired of all the bad news about the Beloit school district, Rojas adds, pointing to a recent news article about a staff member at a local elementary school accused of possession of child pornography. “We need something positive.”

She has been energized by organizing community support for Lincoln Academy. “Let’s just spread the word that something positive is coming,” she says. “First, no matter what, I know that this school would have the priority to have a better and higher education for my children.”

‘We have the right to hire and fire at will. Right to work.’

On the issue of school board governance, Furseth says: “We firmly believe that the autonomy offered in a non-instrumentality or independent charter is critical to the success of the school.” 

“We really believe in order to be fully accountable for the performance of the school we need to make all the critical decisions in the school, including full budget authority, to manage expenditures, the ability to select our staff and hold them accountable. We need a board that is fully committed to our mission and aligned to the school.”

Diane Hendricks puts it more bluntly.

Diane Hendricks, Kristi Cole, and Lisa Furseth join Tim Bremel to discuss The Lincoln Academy, Beloit's Proposed New Charter School (photo from the WCLO Facebook page)
Diane Hendricks, Kristi Cole, and Lisa Furseth join Tim Bremel to discuss The Lincoln Academy, Beloit’s Proposed New Charter School. (Photo from the WCLO Facebook page)

When WCLO’s Bremel asked Hendricks about the difference between the proposed Lincoln Academy, which will receive taxpayer funds, but will not be governed by the Beloit school board, and a regular public school, Hendricks said, “I would think the best way to describe it is very similar to running a business. We also have the right to be able to hire and fire at will. Right to Work.” 

The school will be governed like a private business, Hendricks added: “The board will be appointed, and you will try to find people with the qualifications that you need on the board — somebody with high financial skills, somebody with good operating skills, somebody with good community skills and knowledge of what is going on. So you look for the board that is going to represent the needs of the school, as it functions as a business — because it really is a business. We are in the business of educating our children.”

This is Part One in a series on the Lincoln Academy. Read Part Two: What do Beloit children need?

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.