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American Indian schools’ charter revoked

Alleged corruption in leadership weighed more than excellent test scores and perfect graduation rates when the OUSD board voted 4-3 in last week’s meeting to revoke the American Indian Model charter schools’ charter.

It took one tip more than a year ago; five months of investigation and auditing; $3.8 million of questionable spending that accuses director Ben Chavis and his wife, Marsha Amador of taking that money for themselves; endless pleas from AIMS students, parents and teachers to keep the school’s charter regardless of what may be happening on the business end of running the charter schools; and one vote to shut the operation down.

There are plans to repeal the board’s vote. If the county and/or the state uphold the board’s vote, the vote will take effect on June 30.

Would it have been as hard of a decision to make if the students weren’t performing well?

 

Read Angela Woodall’s coverage of the meeting’s vote here and here.

Also, Andrew J. Coulson’s editorial about why closing the schools is a mistake.

Here is a look at Katy Murphy’s past coverage of events leading up to the final vote last week.

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OUSD board stands firm on American Indian charter school recommendation

The Oakland school board voted 6-1 last night to issue a “notice of intent to revoke” the charters for three schools run by American Indian Model Schools: American Indian Public Charter School (6-8), American Indian Public Charter School II (K-8) and American Indian Public High School.

The next hearing will be Feb. 13. The final decision comes in March, possibly on March 20.

The OUSD board members — with the exception of Chris Dobbins, who cast the dissenting vote — made it clear they didn’t want to hear defenses or excuses. They said they wanted better accounting controls and governance practices — and assurances that the organization’s founder, Ben Chavis, and his wife, Marsha Amador, would be separated from all aspects of managing the organization and its finances.

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Closure threat is mounting for Oakland’s American Indian charter schools

CHARTER SCHOOL EXTENSION
2012 file photo of Ben Chavis by D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group

The American Indian Model Schools organization, whose governing board was accused last year of allowing its founder, Ben Chavis, and wife to funnel millions of tax dollars into their own companies and pockets, has failed to make the necessary fixes and should be shut down at the end of the school year, Oakland school district administration has concluded.

In a letter to families, written in English and in Chinese, Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith has this to say:

The students, teachers, school-site staff, and families deserve recognition for their considerable work and for their outstanding academic achievements. We are committed to ensuring that every child in Oakland has access to a high quality public school in their neighborhood and that they are on a clear path to a successful future. You have found this in the schools you are in now. I will work with you to ensure that your children continue to benefit from a school community that is similar to where they are and that they continue on the pathway to success they are currently on.

However, due to many serious legal issues, I am recommending to the governing board of OUSD that they approve a notice to revoke the charter of American Indian Model Schools. Those responsible for the governance and management of the charter organization have broken the law, a conclusion reached after investigations by three separate government agencies. Continue Reading

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American Indian charter school parents speak out

Staff Photojournalist
American Indian Model Schools supporters, seen here at an April Oakland school board meeting, before the final state report on the charter organization was published. Photo by D. Ross Cameron.

The fate of the American Indian Model Schools won’t be on Wednesday’s regular Oakland school board meeting agenda, but we can expect a large group of parents and students from the three schools at the meeting.

Bernadette Coleman, president of the schools’ new Family Advisory Committee, told me today she believes the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team’s scathing report about the AIMS governance, operations and suspected financial fraud — which came out this summer, prompting OUSD to issue a “notice of violation” in September — was full of errors.

If and when the OUSD board holds a hearing on the subject, Coleman said, “it’ll be public knowledge what is true and what is not.”

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Oakland’s American Indian charter schools respond to violation notice

CHARTER SCHOOL EXTENSION
photo of Ben Chavis, founder of American Indian Model Schools, by D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group

Thirteen binders of material from the American Indian Model Schools were delivered to the Oakland school district offices this week in response to the “notice of violation” the charter school organization received this fall from OUSD.

The prospect of OUSD shutting down three of the city’s top-scoring schools stems from a damning Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team investigation which cited numerous examples of self-dealing and conflicts of interest by the organization’s founder, Ben Chavis, and his wife (and former accountant for the organization), Marsha Amador.

The case has been turned over to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. So far, no word on what, if any, criminal charges will be filed.

The Oakland school district has not released the response from AIM Schools, but Troy Flint, the district’s spokesman, says we can expect a summary from OUSD next week.

No word yet, though, on when the board will respond to the response.

“We just received a voluminous response – thousands of pages – from American Indian on Monday night and are still sorting through it. No determination has been made on when this matter will be heard by the Board.”

What happens next? Continue Reading

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In split vote, OUSD board puts American Indian charter schools on notice

Last night, the Oakland school board issued a 1,080-page “notice of violation” to all three American Indian Model Schools over its fiscal and governance practices. (Link to the massive file here.) It’s the first step in a long process that could end in the closure of all three schools.

Supporters of the charter school organization begged for four more weeks, noting the hiring of a new financial team and the appointment of some new board members. And, of course, the schools’ near-perfect test scores.

Paul Minney, a lawyer representing AIM Schools, told the board that if it tabled the decision for a month, “…we are confident that we can arrive at an action plan to fully assuage the district’s concerns.”

“A notice of violation creates a high degree of fear, uncertainty and anxiety,” he said.

But the appeals made by Minney and the stream of parents and students after him were not enough to sway the board, which voted 4-2 to issue the notice. Board members Alice Spearman and Chris Dobbins voted no, and Noel Gallo was absent.

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State auditors find misappropriation of funds, evidence of fraud and conflict of interest by charter school director

CHARTER SCHOOL EXTENSION
photo by D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group staff

There’s much to say about this report, but it’s been a long day, and the school board meeting is still going on. So for now, what I have for you is a link to the Tribune story about the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team’s final report on alleged financial abuses by American Indian Model schools’ founder, Ben Chavis.

The case is being forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office for review.

Sheila Jordan, Alameda County’s superintendent, has recommended that the Oakland school board “continue to assess the viability of the schools in question.”

 

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Five Oakland schools win Title I achievement awards

Some good news for your spring break (or when you return to reality):

The California Department of Education has announced the winners of the Title I Academic Achievement Award, a distinction for schools with rising test scores that receive funding for low-income children.

All five Alameda County winners were public schools in Oakland: American Indian Public Charter School II (which will remain open, after all), Burckhalter Elementary, Cleveland Elementary, Lighthouse Community Charter High and Lincoln Elementary. Two Contra Costa County schools also won — Highland Elementary in West Contra Costa Unified and Los Medanos Elementary in Pittsburg Unified.

Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction, had this to say about the 117 winners: “The progress being made at these schools, which serve our neediest students, should serve as a beacon of hope for California. At a time of fiscal crisis and economic uncertainty, they continue to improve, building a brighter future for their students.”

Eligibility criteria (from CDE): The school must demonstrate that all students are making significant progress toward proficiency on California’s academic content standards. Additionally, the school’s socioeconomically disadvantaged students must have doubled the achievement targets set for them for two consecutive years.

You can find more information about the award here.

Congratulations!

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Live blog: American Indian charter hearing

Tonight, the Oakland school board went against its staff’s recommendation and renewed the charter for American Indian Public Charter School II. There was an overflow crowd at the meeting. Its director, Ben Chavis, entered the board room to applause.

10:00: The vote on Alice Spearman’s motion to approve the charter, with conditions, just passed, 4-3. Spearman, Noel Gallo, Chris Dobbins and Jumoke Hinton-Hodge approved it; David Kakishiba, Jody London and Gary Yee voted against it.

9:50: Board member David Kakishiba said the American Indian board members’ statements didn’t inspire confidence in him. Sounds like he’s going to vote to deny the charter, according to the staff recommendation.

“The academic program and the outcomes are fantastic, and I really feel angry that you are in this position and that I’m in this position, because it’s not your fault, and it’s sure as heck not my fault,” Kakishiba said.

“Here’s what I think should be done. I’m going to vote for the original motion. The school has an opportunity to appeal to the county. It gives you time to address, in a very honest way, about whether there is anything to address. If there’s nothing wrong … you’ll be able to convince the county board, which has a strong record of overturning our denials.”

Jumoke Hinton Hodge said she agreed with much of what Kakishiba said.

9:40: Board member Jody London said she felt the school’s governing board and administration had violated the public’s trust. “That’s why this is so difficult, because the students are doing very well, and the organization is not following the law. …

London added, “I found the response from the (American Indian) board to be not serious enough. … I’m very interested in finding a way to let the academic program continue.”

Still, she said, she had serious concerns about the schools management, and she is in favor of denying the charter and allowing AIM to appeal to the county. By that time, the full FCMAT report is expected to come out.

9:20: Alice Spearman makes a motion to deny the staff’s recommendation and grant renewal of the school, with conditions: 1) “that the governance team seeks professional development and growth” and 2) that the administration works on creating “acceptable accounting principles.”

Gallo seconded it. Jumoke Hinton Hodge wants to see the renewal be for two years, instead of five. Spearman said she had no problem with that. “I feel the school will rise up to it.”

General counsel Jacqueline Minor says the board can only renew the school for five years, not less than that. But that the board can impose conditions on charter.

9:17: Board member Chris Dobbins is speaking in favor of keeping the school open. “Frankly, I think (parents) don’t care what’s going on with the leadership of the board. Their school’s giving them a safe environment and a safe education. … if there’s malfeasance going on, present it to the district attorney.”

Dobbins added, “I think we need to allow them some time to remedy some of these issues without closing the school down.”

9:15: The last speaker (I think.) The board will then start to deliberate.

8:30: There’s still a long line of speakers. Just about everyone is speaking in support of the school, talking about its safe environment and strong academics. Judi Marquardt-Norris, who’s listed on the charter petition as a board member but told me she was on the board only until the beginning of this year, said publicly that she would take the blame if there was wrongdoing. But in her remarks, she was a bit vague about her tenure on the school’s governing board, saying: “Was it 6 months? Was it a year and a half? Was it all my life? I don’t know.”

8:05: Eighth-grader Arlette Hernandez starts to cry as she reaches the podium, temporarily unable to give her remarks. Chavis comes up and comforts her, telling her to keep going. She says: “I could be at home, hanging out with my friends, maybe going on Facebook. But I’m here for my little sisters … for them to get the same education I got, or even better.”

8:05: An AIPHS high school senior talks about how his mom was right to send him to American Indian. After extolling its virtues, he announces, “Now I have to leave, because I have to study for a statistics test tomorrow. Goodbye.”

7:55: Carl Chan, of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce: “Closure? Are you kidding me? It’s quite shocking.”

7:45: A former teacher, Lorissa Zavala Singleton, says Chavis and his wife committed fraud: “Chavis will try to hide fraud behind these great kids,” she said. “… It is the teachers and students who make American Indian successful. … I’m for the school. I’m not for Chavis.”

7:40: Ben Chavis, on the FCMAT report: “Nowhere do they say they discovered any fraud. The key word when you read the report is `concerns.’ I heard on the news, they said `He got $3 million.’ Ahh, I’d like to see it.”

On the rate he charges the schools per square foot: “I want to charge what you guys charge, if I can…. My building’s 40,000 square feet. … No mathematics was involved in anything, just allegations. … You can take numbers and do anything you want with them, and there’s been a lot of number twisting.”

On allegations of wrongdoing: “If Ben Chavis has done anything wrong, if Ben Chavis has stolen money, if Ben Chavis has committed a crime, you get Ben Chavis. That’s what people want, is to get Ben Chavis, but they’re using Ben Chavis to get the kids.”

7:33: Gallo calls Chavis up to the mic.

7:30: School auditor says he has issued “a clean opinion” for four years.

7:20: Kakishiba to Michael Stember, president of the American Indian board: “Are you categorically denying each and every one of these concerns?”
Stember: “Yes”
Spearman: “Each and every one of them?”
Stember: “Yes”

7:15: Spearman notes that Chavis is the founder, the owner of the building, and the owner of a construction company with which it entered into a contract. “Is it an illegal practice for a charter school to enter into an agreement with a personal business?”

Jacqueline Minor, OUSD’s legal counsel, says it depends on the governing board’s minutes, and whether the board knew that the company was owned by the founder.

7:05: Kakishiba says the school’s performance isn’t in question, “but the issues of the caps of your gov board to provide the necessary oversight for your particular school, and the management.” He asks Michael Stember, president of the American Indian governing board, to speak.

STEMBER:  ”The board is relatively new. It was a very accusatory report, but Gail Greely is paid to do that, and we commend her because what she put together, and the pressure from FCMAT to the community is only making us stronger. … We’ve addressed every single one of the weaknesses. … ”

“This happened before I was board president and I was on the board. … I think the report was so preliminary, their findings weren’t in conclusion.” (Has been on board for 1.5 years.)

Stember says he isn’t prepared to respond to the allegations, saying that it was intended to be a group presentation. He taps a woman to speak who identified herself as the financial administrator. (I believe the founder’s wife was, until recently, the financial administrator.)

7:00: Public comment has begun. A sixth-grade teacher urges the board to put the students first.

6:55: Jumoke Hinton Hodge says she is concerned about the school’s sustainability. “I’m concerned about a foundation not necessarily being there. … I do know what can be our process to ensure or demand, quite frankly, administration and operational corrections are made.”

6:45: Spearman continues her speech in support of American Indian, saying the process “looks like a witch-hunt”: “We’re in the business of providing the best education possible to children. … When you do not allow an entity due process, it’s very problematic to me as a black woman, period. … In the United States, as far as Chinese people go, due process wasn’t given to them, either.”

6:40: Alice Spearman is now starting in on Greely, questioning the validity of the concerns: “… was the school given the chance to remedy some of the fiscal improprieties that you found?”

Greely: “We did not go to the school with a list of improprieties and provide an opportunity to cure. …”

Spearman: Before I make a decision I would like to have some of these concerns answered by the school. … This is the United States of America. In the United States of America … everyone has due process. You’re innocent until you’re proven guilty.”

…”The fact that they have an API of over 900 is extraordinary.”

It sort of feels like a play. The audience is quiet, listening intently, and then breaking in with cheers (or boos).

6:35: Noel Gallo is questioning Gail Greely, director of OUSD, about the timing of the report. Greely: “Our procedure is we make the reports available to the school at the same time we make the report available to the public.”

6:30 Noel Gallo: “In terms of the allegations, accusations, whatever it may be, it hasn’t been proven.”

6:28 Board member Noel Gallo: “For a student body that has an API score of 990 – outstanding.” (cheers) “I wish I could say it in Mandarin or Cantonese, but your community is an example I’d like my community to follow.”

6:20: Gail Greely, director of OUSD’s Office of Charter Schools, gives her report, outlining the preliminary FCMAT findings.

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Will Oakland’s top-scoring school be closed?

BEN CHAVISDuring a 6 5:30 p.m. special meeting Wednesday night, the Oakland school board considers the fate of American Indian Public Charter School II, a middle school in downtown Oakland with a near-perfect Academic Performance Index of 990.

American Indian Public Charter School II, one of three schools run by American Indian Model Schools, is up for its 5-year charter renewal. At the same time, state auditors are investigating allegations of financial fraud in the school’s charter management organization. The Oakland school district’s charter schools office has recommended that the board reject the American Indian renewal application.

You can find our story here, and the district’s report here, along with a progress report from the auditors from the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team.

The staff report cites numerous reasons for its conclusion, from compliance issues (teacher certification and occupancy permits) to a pending investigation into allegations of fraud, conflicts of interest and deliberate misappropriation of funds.

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