The state Board of Education will investigate a charter school management company, but its future — and the future of children attending its schools — is still unknown.
The investigation was prompted after Michael Sharpe, the charter school management group’s CEO, resigned last week when his criminal past was revealed in news reports. Sharpe also admitted to a Hartford Courant reporter that he had never received a doctorate in education and also had not graduated from New York University, despite claiming those titles for years in published literature and in remarks to the state legislature.
The state Board of Education voted Monday to hire a special investigator to look into the finances, governance, familial relationships, properties, and operations of the Family Urban School of Excellence (FUSE) — the charter school organization that oversaw Jumoke Academy and Hartford’s Milner Elementary School. The group also has a contract to manage Bridgeport’s Dunbar Elementary School and had planned to manage New Haven’s Booker T. Washington Academy, which is scheduled to open in the fall.
The Booker T. Washington Academy’s board of directors met Sunday and voted to sever ties with the embattled management group, leaving the state Board of Education with more questions than answers Monday.
Board members wanted to know if the decision means the school will still open this fall or if the 225 students will have to find a spot in the public schools.
The decision to sever ties with the embattled charter school management group “shows strong leadership and good judgment,” Morgan Barth, division director of the Education Department’s Turnaround Department, said Monday. “Booker T. Washington understands the urgency of presenting a plan to have a school up and running in the fall.”
Barth said that plan will be scrutinized with a “great deal of rigor” and the state Board of Education will have another opportunity to vote on the plan presented during a special meeting this summer.
Charles Jaskiewicz III, a board member from Norwich, said that he would rather delay the opening of Booker T. Washington Academy, “so we have prosperity, instead of more angst as we move forward.”
Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said they have discussed with the Booker T. Washington Academy a one-year delay, but Pastor Eldren Morrison requested an opportunity to present a new plan to the board without delay.
“Our view at the moment is that we ought to hear the Booker T. Washington School out,” Pryor said. “See whether the plan is solid. See whether it enhances our confidence.”
Pryor admitted that the size of the school may have to be reduced if it wants to open on schedule in the fall.
Maria Pereira, a former Bridgeport School Board member, said FUSE earned about $435,000 in management fees for its involvement with Bridgeport’s Dunbar School.
When she was a member of the Bridgeport school board, Pereira said she voted against allowing the charter school management company to come in to town because she had done her research on the group’s involvement with Hartford’s Milner School. She said their test scores went down after FUSE took over management of the school.
Pereira said the state Board of Education is responsible for allowing this charter management group to take over these schools and needs to be held accountable.
She said Sharpe took over Jumoke Academy from his mother in 2003 and FUSE was created as a management group in 2012.
“Are you telling me his mother didn’t know he had a federal conviction for embezzlement and that he served two-and-a-half years in a federal prison?” Pereira said.
The revelations about Sharpe prompted the state Board of Education Monday to move forward with background checks for all charter school and charter management employees.
Since only 30 percent of charter school employees have to be certified by the state, it means that most wouldn’t have had to go through the background check process.
Also effective immediately, there will be the development of “anti-nepotism and conflict of interest” policies for all 18 charter schools in the state.
There are about 7,000 children in Connecticut who attend charter schools.
During the board meeting Monday, Pryor and several board members pointed out that Jumoke Academy was a high-achieving school and none of what’s happening should reflect poorly on those accomplishments.
“If Jumoke Academy is offering such a strong educational opportunity that is of great value, [then] protecting that school, ensuring that it advances, rather than experiences stumbles is part of what we’re doing here,” Pryor said.
In the meantime, there’s a lot of finger-pointing. How could someone who heads a charter school organization have gotten away with saying they had a doctorate degree? Pryor said he’s reserving judgment until the investigation is completed.
“What are the lessons learned? What are the corrections that need to be made?” Pryor said, listing off questions he hopes will be answered by the investigation.
Critics of charter schools who attended Monday’s meeting, including gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Pelto, say this is just proof that the charter model doesn’t work.
Pelto said these issues need to be investigated by an outside investigator because the allegations of inappropriate activities go all the way up into the commissioner’s office.
He said the board should have put the charter management group and its flagship charter school, Jumoke Academy, on probation.
“If the Commissioner decides to place Jumoke on probation, he would inform Jumoke’s governing board and parents of the reasons for being placed on probation. Jumoke would be required to file with the CSDE a corrective action plan, which would be subject to the Commissioner’s approval,” the resolution approved Monday by the board reads.
“It’s not just the fox dialing 911 when the chickens are gone — it’s the fox with feathers hanging out of their mouth,” Pelto said.
Messages were left for officials at FUSE’s offices in Hartford.
The investigator is expected to have preliminary information for the board by the end of the month.