By Moriah Costa | Watchdog.org
WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 1,600 D.C. charter students at Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School may have to find a new school amid allegations that its founder funneled $13 million of public money into a private company for personal gain.
A Superior Court judge ordered the school to stop paying the management company that school founder Kent Amos established in 2002. According to a complaint filed by former D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, the company was paid millions of dollars for “work that could have been performed, and in many cases was actually performed, by direct employees of the school.”
At its Dec. 15 public meeting, the D.C. Public Charter School Board voted to begin the process of revoking the school’s charter, citing fiscal mismanagement by the school.
Under the School Reform Act of 1995, the board is required to revoke a charter if a school “has engaged in non-adherence to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, has engaged in a pattern of fiscal mismanagement or is no longer economically viable.” The charter board contends that by making the agreement with the management company, the school’s board failed to protect public funds.
A. Scott Bolden, an attorney for the school, said the academy’s board was as surprised as the charter board.
“The public charter school board does not regulate the for-profit management company, so if you’re upset with the management company, the for-profit one, if you’re offended by that, it’s not right to blame the school, its leadership, its board. It’s not right to blame the families who are here tonight or the kids who are trying to get an education,” he told the D.C. board.
If the school’s charter is revoked, parents will have to find a new school for their students to attend. With more than 20,000 students on the wait list for D.C. charter schools, that could prove difficult.
Amos founded the school in 1998 and four years later created a for-profit management company, Community Action Partners and Charter School Management LLC, along with two colleagues. Over the next 11 years, the school’s management fees steadily rose while costs and staff declined. By 2013, the management company’s staff fell from 12 to four, including Amos.
In 2012, Amos received about $1.15 million in income from the company, according to federal tax returns made public through the trial. In 2013, he earned about $1.28 million. That same year, Amos’ wife and stepson received $103,000 and $167,000, respectively.
The management company also paid $1,148 a month for a 2010 Lexus CX 460 sport-utility vehicle that was registered to Amos, according to the complaint.
In 2013, the academy’s charter was renewed for 15 years, after school leaders agreed to close one of its underperforming campuses. It had closed another school in 2012 for poor academic performance.
For-profit management companies are common among charter schools, but it’s against district law to distribute charter school money for the benefit of private individuals.
In 2012, the board had given the academy a clean bill of financial health. According to the Washington Post, the board started to have concerns a year later about the finances of the management company but was denied a request to review the company’s budget. Under current federal law, a private management company for a school that receives public money does not have to disclose how it spends that money.
Last year, the board asked the D.C. Council to pass legislation that would allow access to the financial records of charter management companies, but so far nothing has been done.
Today the charter serves grades preschool through eight and manages three schools: Amos 1, Amos 2 and Amos 5, and an online program. Two of the schools are in the second-highest charter ranking; the other is ranked last.
At a Jan. 27 public hearing requested by the school, Amos declared he was “not a criminal.” He said he only made 2 percent of the 6 percent flat fee his management company received from the school.
“I left twice as much money on the table as I took off,” he said. He is currently employed by the school as its founder.
At the hearing, Bolden, school staff and members of the community praised Amos’ leadership and devotion to helping D.C. youth. More than 68 people signed up to testify in support of keeping the school open.
Bolden denied the accusations that the school paid the management company for duties performed by school staff and said the for-profit was hired to “provide oversight, monitoring and management of the operations, which they did.”
Keona Oxendine, mother of a student and representative of the parent-teacher organization at Amos 1, said she was worried about the message the board was sending to students.
“I’m listening to the arguments and the accusations and I feel like there’s something fundamentally lost and it’s the children,” she said.
A number of parents asked the board to consider other options besides closing the school.
Lisa Shields, who lives on Bolling Air Force Base in Anacostia, said CAPCS online program helps children of military families transition to a new area and catch up with their peers. She noted that in the past year, police have gotten involved in three incidents at the neighborhood elementary school for the base.
“Our children have to make a lot of sacrifices and consistency in schooling is often one of them,” she said.
Jeremy Phillips, a student at CAPCS online, said he was often bullied in school by his peers and staff and that the online program not only let him escape that, but helped him maintain his 3.6 grade point average.
“I work hard and learn a lot,” he told the board. “Don’t rob me of the opportunity. Life isn’t fair but education should be.”
His mother, Tijwanna Phillips, said they had repeatedly been failed by schools until they found CAPCS’ online program. She asked the board not to close the school without having an equivalent alternative in place.
“The whole purpose of having school choice is to allow parents and students to evaluate their needs and decide which school would be the best match for them,” she said.
The board is scheduled to vote on the school’s fate on Feb. 12. The trial against Amos, the management company and the school is ongoing.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Jeremy Phillips and Tijwanna Phillips. It has been corrected.