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Oakland charter school accused of fraud may close
Ohanian Comment: I couldn't stomach the way Chavez treats kids. He equates discipline with public humiliation.
Mistreat kids and nobody notices. Abscond with some money, and you're in trouble.
Notice that 90% of the students at American Indian Public Charter School are Asian American.
by Jill Tucker
A controversial Oakland charter school with a history of rigid rules, harsh discipline and the second highest test scores in the state faces closure after an investigation found evidence of fraud and multiple violations of state laws.
Oakland school district staff has recommended the Board of Education deny the renewal application of American Indian Charter School II based on preliminary findings of a state audit. If denied, the public school would close after this academic year.
The financial allegations involve more than $1 million in public funds funneled to the school's founder, Ben Chavis, and his wife, Marsha Amador, for rent, consulting, construction projects and other questionable payments with little to no oversight by the school's own board.
The school, which opened in 2007, posted 990 points on the state's Academic Performance Index, an almost perfect score out of a possible 1,000 and only two points behind top-scoring Elkhorn Middle School in Lodi (San Joaquin County). In 2010, it was named a California Distinguished School.
It is one of three Oakland charter schools founded by Chavis, whose profanity-laced, no-nonsense approach has been held up by some as a model for inner-city schools. Under Chavis, public humiliation, Saturday school and detention were common tools used in enforcement. But the tactics drew national scorn as well as praise.
This week, he was in the hot seat as the investigation identified evidence of misuse of public funds by Chavis and his wife, the school's financial administrator.
"Several companies that conduct business with the charter schools are owned by the founder and/or his spouse, and payment for these services are signed by one or both of these individuals," according to the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team investigators in a March 30 status report.
Chavis said Monday that everything he did was for the students, and said that he only conducts business "differently."
He boasted that the nonprofit that runs the charter school is fiscally sound, with a $1 million reserve fund. Unlike the Oakland school district that will pass judgment on the school, he said, the state-funded American Indian charters have never had to borrow money.
"Did I do things differently? Sure did," Chavis said. "Whatever we did, (the charter's) board approved us."
Among the evidence raised in the ongoing investigation:
-- $500,000 in checks, signed by Chavis without board authorization, made out to his personal businesses for school construction projects.
-- $100,000 annually paid to Chavis in life insurance, salary and retirement when he was identified only as the school's landlord.
-- $100,000 in checks for the Stanford Academic Institute summer school program, although the checks were cashed by Chavis.
-- $150,000 to Amador for bookkeeping while receiving a separate salary as financial administrator.
In addition, Chavis received $280,000 in annual rent because the school is housed in a building he owns. He appeared as both the lessee and lessor in the lease, according to the preliminary audit findings. There were also questionable credit card expenditures and Department of Motor Vehicle fees paid, although the school had no vehicles.
Chavis acknowledged owning the building he leases to the school, noting he charges half of what he charged to a law firm for the space.
"I'm about getting results," he said.
Besides financial problems, the investigation found the middle school hired staff that didn't have required teaching credentials. The school also lacked a "willingness or capacity to service students with special needs or English learners."
Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith and county Superintendent Sheila Jordan requested the investigation after receiving anonymous complaints by parents, students and former staff.
The audit included a review of educational and administrative policies and practices at the nonprofit American Indian Model Schools, which oversees Chavis' three schools. Investigators said evidence showed the nonprofit's board was inexperienced, violated open meeting laws, and failed to provide proper oversight.
A final report on the allegations is expected late this month.
Auditors noted that if illegal activities or even the perception of them exists, the county superintendent will be required to forward the report to the local district attorney.
As word circulated about the investigation, school officials scrambled Monday to tell students and parents about the pending vote.
Parent Michael Yu helped pass out flyers Monday, saying he didn't believe the allegations.
"I think the first thing to look at is how well the school is doing," said Yu, whose son is a sixth-grader there. "They want to shut us down? It's crazy."
Like its sister schools, American Indian Public Charter School II is regimented, with a laser-like focus on test scores. Students are expected to follow school rules and show up on time prepared.
Nearly 90 percent of the school's 302 students are Asian American, records show. That's a departure from the student diversity Chavis promoted years ago.
On Monday, parent Chaula Pandva said she had been unaware of the financial issues related to the school, but hoped the school board would allow it to remain open for her special needs daughter, who has thrived there.
"I have never seen her get excited about going to school as she does about going to this school," she said. "It totally works for her."
Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
San Francisco Chronicle
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