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High Test Scores Do Not Prevent Closure Due to Fraud: Atlanta’s Latin Academy Charter

June 5, 2016

Between my time as both public school student and public school teacher, I have been involved in numerous fundraisers. But never have I had to ask for money to keep my school open because an administrator cleaned us out.

In March 2016, the Latin Academy Charter School in Atlanta did just that: In the face of being stiffed for over half a million dollars by a former school manager, the school was trying to figure out how to raise $250,000 to keep it open throughout the summer of 2016.

There was even word of an anonymous donor willing to shell out a conditional $1 million to keep the school operational.

But it didn’t work.

How would one run a campaign to keep the school afloat after the previous administration robbed it blind? Kids in matching uniforms holding signs, “Help us recover from an obscene fraud. A quarter-mil will do.”

A sad story for the 200-plus students affected. And for their families. And for the community.

Latin Academy Charter School had been subject to independent audits; however, it appears that the 2015 audit was overdue in 2016 (this is mentioned in one of the 2016 CFO reports. (Other board docs for the school can be found here.) Not sure how loose other audits were; however, it is clear that the Latin Academy board trusted Clemons:

“Should we have done a little more?” asked board chair Kaseem Ladipo. “Yeah, we could have.”

“But the reality is that I would never ever expect a board to micromanage a school leader because of the assumption that they would steal from the school.”

Once the spending of school founder Chris Clemons became suspect in October 2015, in retrospect, the board decided more controls were needed, including an external chief financial officer and more frequent audits.

But by October 2015, it was too late. The fatal $600,000 had already gone missing. In 2016, the school will close.

As journalist Molly Bloom notes in the June 03, 2016, Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Christopher Clemons, the school’s founder, has been charged with fraud and theft in the largest such case in Georgia charter school history.

Clemons left Atlanta after the losses were discovered. …

And he left a cautionary tale for Georgia’s growing charter school movement. Latin Academy, with its all-star board and experienced leader, seemed on track to thrive. But behind that facade of apparent success, the school spent millions of tax dollars with little public scrutiny and operated with a lack of public input foreign to many traditional public schools.

And the school had high test scores, which the board seemed to consider to mean the school was solvent. A close eye to the academics means that all must be well with the school– right?

Of course not.

Bloom brings this point home:

The board scrutinized test results, homework scores and student discipline data, but there’s little evidence they paid the same attention to school finances. The board trusted Clemons, with his Ivy League pedigree and reputation as a rising star in the charter school world.

Clemons hit the school accounts at the ATM and blew the money on himself. He was able to squander $600,000 before anyone with any authority was able to stop him. Suitable controls not in place.

chris clemons  Chris Clemons, pre-fraud-detection

Bloom reports that Georgia legislators are trying to prevent the likes of Clemons from stealing from their own schools in the future:

The theft prompted state legislators to toughen charter school financial regulations this year by requiring more financial training for charter school boards and barring school leaders like Clemons from also handling finances.

Christopher_Clemons  Christopher Clemons (Denver Police Photo)

In August 2012, Clemons wrote a piece for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools on how to successfully start a charter. He mentioned his “eight years of involvement with charter schools,” and he wrote of his experience in starting Latin Academy. And his words read as one who has experience, is invested, and can be trusted:

Though authorization is not an easy thing to come by, too much delay and resting on laurels can result in an authorized school that never opens for students. So, we spent every day after our authorization preparing to clear the hurdles that stand between getting the permission to have a school and actually having one. From nothing, we have had to recruit students, find a building, hire staff, and plan for the actual day-to-day of the school. Nothing along that journey was simple or came easy—for instance, our start-up year coincided with a tension-filled and controversial redistricting process within APS that placed charters (particularly new ones) under an increased level of public scrutiny. We also had challenges finding a suitable facility—we did not learn that we would have a place to open in until the 2nd week of July.

Regardless of those challenges, we have managed to overcome each one—we have all of our students, we have all of our wonderful staff, and we do have a building. Though that is a significant accomplishment, it is not enough, and it is not why we have undertaken this work. All the work over two years that we’ve done to create Latin Academy was only so that we could have an opportunity to address the real issue that brought us to this work—the significant academic challenges of our southwest Atlanta children.

Clemons concluded his 2012 piece triumphant and hopeful:

We opened to 92 very bright and eager 6th grade students three weeks ago, and I can see the elements of our plan falling into place, and our school slowly but surely turning into the Academy our students need it to be. The pathway of starting a charter school is fraught with more opportunities to fail than Odysseus’ road back to Penelope, but we are thrilled to have made it to this point and eager to make the most of a remarkable opportunity.

We cannot know yet whether Latin Academy will be a good school, but as of August 6th, it is a real school, and one that we are all hopeful will be a transformative influence on children’s lives.

But he had too much unbridled access to school finances. And he took out his own school.

Sadly, Clemons has transformed lives– those of his students and his own– for the worse.

Latin Academy was a real school. Was.

Now it becomes a scandalized memory tossed atop the growing heap of America’s under-regulated, charter school casualties.

latin academy

______________________________________________________________

Coming June 24, 2016, from TC Press:

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Stay tuned.

 

***

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

8 Comments
  1. This is a major problem with Charters. We have Charters closing all over the country on a daily basis leaving kids stranded. I know kids that have been in a different school each year. And no one seems to be concerned over this. When was the last time you heard a public school closing its doors and stranding hundreds of students??? It doesn’t happen. Charters were a bad idea and still are a bad idea. But if you understand the true agenda behind Charters you will understand it is all by design.

    • This exact scenario, one school after the next opening and then closing, has happened so often in our large, inner-city district that it suggests a collective lawsuit for those students who have been most abused. However, the students most abused? Typically happen to be our poorest and least socially powerful citizens…no money equals no lawsuits. And the cycle goes on.

    • Donna permalink

      The public schools close when the politicians and the charterizers DECIDE to close them. One after another. Like dominos.

  2. Gabriel Maldonado permalink

    Public schools have also seen huge financial scandals like these, as have many highly regulated government agencies and businesses. To point one recent example, a superintendent in Long Island, NY stole several million. The point is that the critical issue is hiring competent and moral people. Its got little to do with oversight (there are always ways to steal) nor with charter schools.

    • I don’t think oversight is “little” in preventing scandal. And I would be interested in just how one assures the hiring of moral people. Until he stole $600,000, Clemons had no record.

  3. Laura H. Chapman permalink

    But he was a serial starter of charter schools including some in your neck of the woods. This is a fascinating tale about his fabulous ability to patch together a career. The Board did does not seem to have a clue about due diligence. http://mitsloan.mit.edu/pdf/NewsAtMITSloan_Issue94.pdf

  4. stiegem permalink

    This IS a “priceless” article archived and posted here by Laura. Note the 2007 date.

    When I began employment as a speech pathologist in MI in 2005, we had monthly meetings with our Director. She was “well-seasoned”.

    During one of the small groups within a meeting, she said, “Just wait until 2014. No one will want to work for a public school.”

    Little did any of us know her foresight.

    Thank you for all your work, Mercedes (and Laura).

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