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NCLB Outrages

D.C. Paid For Training Schools Say Didn't Occur

The question here is how and why a board of education would give a private party such financial independence: undocumented bills for thousands.

By V. Dion Haynes

In September 2005, Equal Access in Education billed the city $76,250 to train math and reading teachers in techniques to boost student performance at five D.C. public charter schools that failed to meet academic targets.

But principals at four of the schools (the fifth one has closed) say that they never heard of Equal Access and that their teachers never received training from the company.

"It boggles my mind that this could have happened," said Norman Johnson, executive director of Integrated Design & Electronics Academy Public Charter School (IDEA) in Northeast Washington. "We certainly needed those services."

Federal authorities are investigating whether Equal Access was connected to Brenda L. Belton, the former executive director of the Board of Education's charter schools office. The company submitted invoices requesting that payments be sent to 26 Underwood Pl. NW, the address of a duplex formerly owned by Belton and currently owned by her daughter Lindsay Holmes. In May, the FBI raided Belton's office and home as well as the Underwood Place property as part of its investigation into the possible misuse of public funds by the board's charter school oversight office.

Documents obtained by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act show that Equal Access charged the city at least $395,000 between 2002 and 2006 to monitor charter schools to ensure they were meeting financial and academic targets and to provide teacher training. One Equal Access invoice indicated that in addition to the IDEA charter school, four other charter schools -- Booker T. Washington in Northwest, Elsie Whitlow Stokes in Northwest, Options in Northeast and the now-closed Jos-Arz Therapeutic in Northeast -- had received training services. But officials at the three open schools said Equal Access was not one of their vendors.

In some of the documents requesting payments, Equal Access did not specify which schools were supposed to have received the services.

"I think everybody associated with this mess should pass 'Go' and go straight to jail," school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said when told about the five schools that did not receive services detailed in invoices from Equal Access.

Next month, Cafritz said, the school board will consider hiring a university or a nonprofit group to manage the 18 charter schools it currently oversees.

According to school and city officials who are seeking answers about the charter funds, Belton, who was fired this month, had worked without many of the checks and balances imposed on other agency executives.

The school board gave Belton, who at times supervised five employees, broad authority to issue hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to consultants to monitor the schools under the school board's charge and to help those failing to meet academic targets. For many of those contracts, Belton used a special school system fund that allowed her to bypass city regulations that require agencies seeking contract work to put potential vendors through an extensive vetting and bidding process.

For a vendor to be paid, agencies must submit an invoice and a form verifying that the service or merchandise was satisfactorily provided.

"There are no excuses for apparently misappropriating funds or giving funds to consultants without a work product," said D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the education committee and first alerted the school board to a potential problem with Belton. "The board had a responsibility to supervise that office, and the board failed to do so."

Although her office was on the ninth floor of the school system's central administration building, Belton was not part of the system's staff. The 1996 charter school law created a firewall between the independently operated and publicly funded schools and the D.C. school superintendent.

Belton answered only to school board members, part-time supervisors who were rarely around to monitor the office's activities.

To pay Equal Access and other vendors, Belton used the school system's Central Investment Fund, which accepts donations from individuals and organizations requesting that the money be used for specific purposes, such as purchasing library books and supplies for needy children.

Belton had deposited $200,000, collected from the charter schools to run the board's charter office, into the investment fund. Some of that money was used to pay vendors.

Equal Access received $32,614 from the investment fund in February and $108,759 from the fund between April and July of last year, according to documents from the office of the chief financial officer.

To withdraw the funds, Belton submitted invoices but no documentation from charter school officials confirming that they had received the services, according to Pamela D. Graham, the school system's interim chief financial officer, whose staff administered the fund.

Graham said the investment fund is designed to streamline the payment process so schools can "quickly get access to the money." If the money was in a general fund, she added, "we'd have to have a purchase order, an invoice and a receiving report" verifying that the service or merchandise was provided.

Cafritz said the board allowed Belton to deposit the $200,000 in charter school funds in the investment account to let the office carry over funds from year to year, a privilege not permitted in general accounts.

Natwar M. Gandhi, the city's chief financial officer, cut off the charter school office's access to the investment fund in the spring after learning of the federal investigation.

Patterson said the independent structure under which Belton operated would have worked had the school board properly supervised her.

Cafritz said she and Russell Smith, who until recently was the school board's executive director, tried a few years ago to get Belton to report to Smith. But Belton and the school board resisted, she said.

Last year, two independent studies, including one by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, found that many charter schools were floundering because of improper oversight. The board closed one of those schools, Jos-Arz Therapeutic, a special education facility in which the city invested more than $15 million. The board then established an ad hoc committee to oversee the charter office.

School board member JoAnne Ginsberg, who chairs that committee, said she became fed up with Belton for not showing up for work and for turning in reports that were late and sloppy. She said that she sought to have Belton fired but that Cafritz and the three other members of the committee opposed that.

A few months later, in June, the FBI and other federal officials raided Belton's office, confiscating computers and records. Belton was on paid administrative leave until two weeks ago, when the board voted to fire her.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

— V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post
2006-10-30


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