Late Friday afternoon the state Education Department released a 99-page investigation by a special investigator it hired to look into the finances, governance, familial relationships, property, and operations of a Hartford charter school organization.
The investigation found that Jumoke Academy — which was managed by the Family Urban School of Excellence (FUSE) — has suffered significant damage to its reputation as a result of the actions of its leadership, “or lack thereof, which could threaten its continued existence.”
The investigation conducted by attorney Frederick Dorsey was prompted by revelations this past summer that FUSE’s CEO Michael Sharpe had been convicted in 1989 of embezzling $100,000 from a California transit organization where he had been a real estate manager. Sharpe also admitted that he didn’t hold a doctorate degree.
According to the investigation, in 2003, when Sharpe applied to become the CEO of Jumoke Academy, his bachelors and graduate degrees were documented, but not the doctorate. The investigation found it was “eventually determined to be nonexistent.”
In 2012, Sharpe became the CEO of FUSE, but, according to Dorsey, he never really gave up his responsibilities at Jumoke Academy.
The investigation found that FUSE was created as a charter school management company in 2012, but held no board of director meetings until June 2014, after revelations regarding Sharpe led to his resignation and FUSE’s “ultimate demise.”
“During this two-year period, FUSE became synonymous with Jumoke,” Dorsey concluded.
In lieu of FUSE board meetings, the entity was run by Sharpe, according to Dorsey’s investigation.
The audit took several months because of an ongoing FBI investigation and grand jury subpoenas. No indictments have been made.
“While neither the FBI nor the grand jury did anything to directly restrict this investigation’s access to pertinent files and information, the existence of the FBI/grand jury probe, with its concomitant subpoena powers unavailable in this investigation, have significantly delayed response from parties to this investigation’s request for documents and access to personnel for interviews,” Dorsey wrote.
Dorsey interviewed 20 current or former Jumoke and FUSE employees, including Sharpe.
“Mr. Sharpe had the final say on all matters regarding FUSE and its operations, including the sole right to determine whether individuals with identified criminal records would be employed by FUSE or any of the organizations with which FUSE had contracted management services,” Dorsey concluded.
Also causing confusion were the finances of Jumoke and FUSE. FUSE had no entity set up to pay its employees. All employees were paid through Jumoke, which made things difficult when FUSE employees tried to collect unemployment.
The investigation, which was approved in June, prompted the state Board of Education to ask all charter schools to implement an anti-nepotism policy and conduct background checks on all employees.
Sharpe’s nephew, Joseph Dickerson III, was authorized to act as FUSE’s fiduciary agent, but “was not qualified to administer such a financial arrangement and, as the nephew of Mr. Sharpe, was not a disinterested party to oversee his uncle’s actions,” Dorsey wrote.
The investigation also found that of the 16 employees FUSE hired to help turn around Dunbar School in Bridgeport, two of the academic assistants hired had felony convictions. One of those included reference to “sex offenses,” but both were cleared for employment by Sharpe without any notice to Bridgeport.
According to the FUSE program director at the school, the decision to hire the two convicted felons was based on “their personal turnaround, growth, and their strong community ties.”
FUSE lost all six of its management contracts with schools in Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, and Louisiana after Sharpe’s resignation.
Before becoming CEO of Jumoke, Sharpe worked as a paraprofessional at the school, which was founded by his mother, Thelma Ellis Dickerson.
Both Sharpe and his sister, Ethyl Dickerson, were employed by Jumoke. Michelle Sharpe, Michael Sharpe’s daughter, also was employed by Jumoke and supervised by relatives for at least a portion of her employment.
“Ethyl Dickerson was uniquely and questionably retained by Jumoke as an independent contractor; Michelle Sharpe, though she had no degree or certification in an educational field, eventually became High School Transition Coordinator at Jumoke, a position for which she had no documented qualifications.”
The investigation also found that Jumoke has purchased 8 properties over the past few years increasing its debt service by 69.19 percent. At least two of the mortgages have balloon payments that come due in 2017. Those loans were guaranteed by FUSE, “which is not currently operational.”
“While existing budget projections from Jumoke show that Jumoke appears to have sufficient revenue flow to allow it to continue to operate on its approved budget for 2014-15; the continuing drain from debt service, declining enrollment in comparison to projections, and the payments that will become due on existing loan agreements in September and October of 2017, raise serious questions regarding Jumoke’s financial viability in the 2017-18 fiscal year.”
But there is still hope Jumoke will survive. Educators continue to express “often in emotional, teary terms,” the hope that they get beyond what they perceive as “non-educational issues,” the investigation found.
“Parents interviewed were equally frustrated and apprehensive regarding the state of the school,” Dorsey wrote. “The timing of the disclosures and the extent of the investigation needed to review with matters that were uncovered left parents less than a month from the start of the school with no concrete information as to the status of Jumoke operations for the 2014-15 school year.”
He added: “However, these parents strongly supported the efforts of the building educators and expressed a unanimous opinion that their children were receiving a quality education in a nurturing environment.”
The investigation found that student test scores have been improving over the past four years and there’s no reason to “believe that the scores recorded by Jumoke students are not valid and accurate representations of those students’ laudable academic abilities.”
Outgoing Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said the “mismanagement and poor judgment detailed in this report are extremely disappointing and must be remedied.”
Pryor continued: “Going forward, to protect the interests of the school’s students, parents, and teachers, Jumoke Academy must demonstrate to the state that it can take the steps needed to restore our trust and ensure the school’s continued viability.”
One of those steps will require Jumoke Academy to submit its budget to the state Education Department for inspection, along with all of its financial policies and protocols for the next several years.