Monday, August 06, 2007

Charter Schools: The Issue Is Oversight

Hamden School Continued To Pay Director After State Demanded His Ouster

More than a year after the state warned a Hamden charter school to fire him, Lyndon Pitter still had a hand in the school's operations - and, state officials say, in its bank account.

Investigators want to know why the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School wrote a series of checks for at least $150,000 between October and April to Pitter - who was already the target of an investigation for allegedly spending thousands in school funds on personal expenses from Armani suits to limousines.The case could make Pitter, the school's longtime director, a poster child for the need for tighter controls over charters, the publicly funded experimental schools that have often been an appealing alternative for parents.

Charters, part of a popular nationwide movement, are granted freedom from customary administrative and union rules in an effort to foster innovation. The unusual degree of freedom has produced success stories such as the Amistad Academy in New Haven and Jumoke Academy in Hartford.

Fraud, experts say, is relatively rare in charter schools. Among charters that have closed, many simply managed budgets poorly and ran out of money.But, in a small number of cases in Connecticut and elsewhere, there have been abuses, too, educators say.

"It is the dark side of the market-driven education system," said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan.

Across the nation, a handful of charter schools have run into problems stemming from financial mismanagement or, in some cases, fraud.

In Texas, three people were sentenced to prison in 2005 for scamming the state and federal governments out of millions of dollars by inflating enrollment figures at a Houston charter school and draining funds from a free lunch program for needy children.

In California, a 2005 audit of a company providing administrative services to four charter schools reported conflicts of interest, improper claims of more than $8 million in state money and credit card charges by company officials for items including Disney merchandise, health spa visits and jet skis.

In Minnesota, the founders of a St. Paul charter school were sentenced to prison last year for conspiracy, filing false tax returns and other crimes after investigators found they used school funds to buy luxury cars, houses, a Caribbean cruise and other personal items.

In Connecticut, the state issued an audit last year that said Pitter used school funds for personal expenses, hired various friends and relatives for school jobs and paid his ex-wife a full-time salary even though she spent school hours attending a community college. Officials, including Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, also accused Pitter of falsifying his educational credentials and called for his firing...

This from the Courant.

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