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Report: Millions of Dollars in Fraud, Waste Found in Charter School Sector

The Washington Post - April 28, 2015, by Valerie Strauss - A new report released on Tuesday details fraud and waste totaling more than $200 million of uncovered fraud and waste of taxpayer funds in the charter school sector, but says the total is  impossible to know because there is not sufficient oversight over these schools. It calls on Congress to include safeguards in legislation being considered to succeed the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The report, titled “The Tip of the Iceberg: Charter School Vulnerabilities To Waste, Fraud, And Abuse,” was released jointly by the nonprofit organizations  Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Center for Popular Democracy. It follows a similar report released a year ago by the same groups that detailed $136 million in fraud and waste and mismanagement in 15 of the 42 states that operate charter schools. The 2015 report cites $203 million, including the 2014 total plus $23 million in new cases, and $44 million in earlier cases not included in last year’s report.

It notes that these figures only represent fraud and waste in the charter sector uncovered so far, and that the total that federal, state and local governments “stand to lose” in 2015 is probably more than $1.4 billion. It says, “The vast majority of the fraud perpetrated by charter officials will go undetected because the federal government, the states, and local charter authorizers lack the oversight necessary to detect the fraud.”

The report makes these policy recommendations:

■ Mandate audits that are specifically designed to detect and prevent fraud, and increase the transparency and accountability of charter school operators and managers.
■ Clear planning-based public investments to ensure that any expansions of charter school investments ensure equity, transparency, and accountability.
■ Increase transparency and accountability to ensure that charter schools provide the information necessary for state agencies to detect and prevent fraud.

It also says:

State and federal lawmakers should act now to put systems in place to prevent fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement. While the majority of state legislative sessions are coming to an end, there is an opportunity to address the charter school fraud problem on a federal level by including strong oversight requirements in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is currently being debated in Congress. Unfortunately, some ESEA proposals do very little reduce the vulnerabilities that exist in the current law. If the Act is passed without the inclusion of the reforms outlined in this report, taxpayers stand to lose millions more dollars to charter school fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.

The charter school sector has expanded significantly in the last decade and now educates about 5 percent of the students enrolled in public schools.  The Obama administration has supported the spread of charter schools; President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 includes $375 million specifically for charters, a 48 percent increase over last year’s actual budget.

Proponents say charters offer choices for parents and competition for traditional public schools. Critics say that most charters don’t perform any better — and some of them worse — than traditional public schools, take resources away from school districts, and are part of an effort to privatize public education.

The report says that any “effective, comprehensive fraud prevention system” should include:

■ Taking proactive steps to educate all staff and board members about fraud;
■ Ensuring that one executive-level manager coordinates and oversees the fraud risk assessment and reports to the board of directors, oversight bodies, and school community;
■ Implementing reporting procedures that include conflict disclosure, whistleblower protections, and a clear investigation process;
■ Undergoing and posting a fraud risk assessment conducted by a consultant expert in applicable standards, key risk indicators, anti-fraud methodology, control activities, and detection procedures; and
■ Developing and implementing quality assurance, continuous monitoring, and, where necessary, correction action plans, with clear benchmarks and reporting

The report details cases across the country, among them:

 The District of Columbia
In February 2015, the DC Public Charter School Board unanimously voted to revoke the charter of the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School. The DC Attorney General is suing the founder, Kent Amos, for diverting public education funding to a private company for his personal profit. That private management company paid Amos more than $2.5 million over the last 2 years. Over the past 10 years, the school has paid the private entity more than $14 million and, while costs to the private company declined over that time, management fees rose. The charter board’s oversight report showed “no pattern of fiscal mismanagement.” Members of the DC Public Charter School Board have described their limited ability to oversee for-profit management companies, which face no requirement to disclose salaries or other pertinent information.

In April 2014, Steven Ingersoll, founder of Grand Traverse Academy, was convicted on federal fraud and tax evasion. He did not report $2 million of taxable income in 2009 and 2010. The school’s audit revealed a $2.3 million prepayment to Ingersoll’s school management company. The school’s later decision to write down $1.6 million of the loan put the school in a deficit position for the first time. Ingersoll then used half of a $.8 million loan for school construction to pay down some of his debt to the school.13 After the founder’s ouster, his daughter-in-law continued to handle the finances of the school.

In January 2015, the state auditor released a report of the results of unannounced visits by inspectors to 30 charter schools. In nearly half of the schools, the school-provided headcount was significantly higher than the auditors’ headcount. Schools are funded based on headcount, so these inflated figures amount to taxpayer dollars siphoned away from students. Among the seven schools with the most extreme variances between reported head count and the auditors’ headcount, almost 900 students were missing, at a cost of roughly $5.7 million.16 Auditors identified eight other schools with troubling, but less significant variances. In June 2014, a grand jury indicted the superintendent and 2 board members of Arise! Academy in Dayton of soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for awarding a “lucrative” consulting contract to a North Carolina-based company. The contract was worth $420,919 and the charter personnel received kickbacks in the form of cash, travel, and payments to a separate business.

In July 2014, the Los Angeles Unified School District performed a forensic audit of Magnolia Public Schools. They found that the charter-school chain used education dollars to pay for six nonemployees’ immigration costs and could not justify $3 million in expenses over four years to outsource curriculum development, professional training, and human resources services that the school itself reported doing.