Good grades and high test scores weren’t enough to save three charter schools from a closure order by the Oakland Unified School District board.
The board voted 4-3 Wednesday to close the American Indian Model Schools (AIMS) on June 30 primarily because of financial irregularities, although all three schools rank among the state’s top charter schools academically. The charter schools were the subject of a scathing audit by the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) last June and have received flak for the behavior of their high-profile founder, civil rights leader Ben Chavis.
The AIMS charter was founded in 1996, but despite its name is now predominantly attended by Asians (68.5% in 2010-11). Hispanics are 18% and American Indians 1% of the approximately 700 students who attend the schools. The first of the three charters, a middle school, had the highest Academic Performance Index (API) in the state in 2009-10. A second middle school was one of 200 schools nationally to receive a Blue Ribbon Award from the U.S. Department of Education.
Chavis, often referred to as the founder although he didn’t join the charter until 2000, was a lightening rod for criticism early on for his perceived arrogance, an emphasis on discipline, unconventional education techniques and domineering control of the schools. The auditors noted his reputation, but focused on allegations that Chavis and his wife were siphoning off money from the schools and creating “an environment that allowed access, opportunity and motivation for occupational fraud to occur.”
Chavis was forced to step down as head of the charter schools, but retained ownership of buildings he and his wife leased to them. That connection was cited by some board members who voted to revoke the charter. The audit accused Chavis of profiting from the charter and ignoring his fiduciary responsibility to abstain from “self-dealing.”
The charter board was slammed for letting Chavis have his way, “which allowed the founder to engage in contractual arrangements subject to conflict-of-interest prohibitions and misappropriation of assets.” Charter schools that receive federal grants through their state have strict rules governing allowable expenditures.
The audit found that Chavis and his wife received $3.8 million in payments from 2007-2011 via real estate deals, consulting agreements and other arrangements.
The school board’s decision can be appealed to the Alameda County Board of Education and, eventually, the state board.