Sunday, December 18, 2011

Imagine there's no conspiracy? It's easy only if you're Tom Moran...

Tom Moran's editorial today is preposterous.   I am not an investigative journalist, but with just a bit of careful reading it's pretty easy to see the handwriting on the wall.  Allow me to illustrate.

Last month I noticed a story out of St. Lois, MO about Imagine Schools, the largest for profit charter management chain in the country.  

Imagine Schools operates 75 schools in 12 states and the District of Columbia.  As a full-service charter school operator, Imagine is basically a multi-state “school district” educating approximately 40,000 students (about the same size as the Newark public school system, while larger than Cincinnati, Minneapolis, or Buffalo).

Their St. Lois schools are failing - big time.  So much so the mayor called for every single school they operate in his city to be shut down.  Imagine not only operates the schools, they also make a killing buying, selling and leasing the facilities that their charters occupy.  They have a whole separate arm of their business that handles these transactions called Schoolhouse Finance.  Such an innocuous sounding name, isn't it?  Conjures up images of a little red schoolhouse in the middle of a prairie.  

Except for this:

The charter school operator Imagine Schools has placed a top executive on administrative leave and has received a stern warning from the sponsor of its St. Louis schools, following revelations about the company's financial dealings.
Top officials at Missouri Baptist University met this week with Dennis Bakke, chief executive of Imagine Schools, for a "candid and honest discussion" about the university's relationship with the company, said university spokesman Bryce Chapman.
Findings about Imagine's St. Louis real estate and contractor dealings in recent days are 'serious" and "need to be investigated." Chapman said.
Bakke has been in town this week giving Imagine's six underperforming charter schools in the city extra attention and support after a Post-Dispatch series showed them to be entangled in complex real estate dealings that have contributed to high rent payments while classrooms lacked basics such as textbooks.
The company has placed Sam Howard, executive vice president, on administrative leave pending the results of an internal investigation. Imagine spokeswoman Lori Waters said. The Post-Dispatch reported that a contracting firm that renovated Imagine school buildings had made $32,000 in payments to a "Sam Howard." Howard had no explanation for the payments.  (emphasis mine)

And guess where Sam Howard is from?  NEW JERSEY!  A quick google search on Mr. Howard revealed this, from last October after the list of fast-track charter school applications were reported by Mr. Moran's own paper:

Among the proposals were some with ties to out-of-state charter school networks, like Imagine Schools, which helped local residents write applications in Jersey City, Newark, Camden, Trenton.
Imagine serves 40,000 students in 72 schools in 12 states, according to its website. "New Jersey is an area that is favorable for (education) alternatives," Samuel Howard, Imagine School’s executive vice president, said.
Christie has said he hoped to attract charter networks to New Jersey, but out-of-state companies face a roundabout process. A local group must first win approval for a charter then, if it wants to outsource the operation, must ask for bids. (emphasis mine)

Gee, Rice is looking less and less like a conspiracy theorist now… here is proof from the Star Ledger that the largest for-profit charter operator in the country has already helped write and submit four applications in urban districts, one of which is Rice's.   

Notice who the quote is from?  Yup, our buddy Samuel Howard who has been placed on leave for allegedly taking kickbacks in Imagine's real estate dealings in St. Louis.  Interesting that Imagine is finding New Jersey "favorable for (education) alternatives."  

By the way, Imagine also takes money right of the top of a school's operations as well.  Check this out from the Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, IN.  The article is aptly titled: EDUCATION INC. – Part I: Private company skirts public boards in running tax-funded charter schools; For-profit makes decisions for tax-funded Imagine

In April 2006, when Willis announced he wanted to start a charter school, Imagine Schools Inc. was already on site and involved – a year before the board would have its first meeting. In September of that year, Imagine-Fort Wayne Charter School Inc. was formed, allegedly the local organization that would start the school and contract with Imagine Schools Inc. of Virginia to run it. 

But the contact person for the non-profit Imagine-Fort Wayne Charter School was Imagine Schools Inc.’s executive vice president, Jason Bryant, and the corporation’s address was Bryant’s house in Fort Wayne. The incorporator was Imagine Schools’ attorney, Joseph Miller, of Baker & Daniels in Indianapolis. 

Two months later, the local non-profit filed for tax-exempt status with the IRS – the paperwork was again handled by Miller – and signed a contract with Imagine Schools Inc. 

The contract was signed by Willis; board members never publicly discussed it or voted on it, as it would be five months before their first meeting. Instead, they signed a resolution that claims it has the same authority as if it had been approved unanimously by the board at a public meeting. 

Indiana Public Access Counselor Andrew Kossack said there is no provision in the state’s Open Meetings Act that would allow such action. State law requires all public bodies to take all official action during public meetings.

That contract gave away the board’s power to make decisions on issues such as busing, hiring and the name of the school itself. It also gave Imagine Schools Inc. 12 percent of every penny the school took in. (emphasis mine)

Mr. Moran, I ask you to look into whether any of the four Imagine backed applications made it through last October's round of applications.  Like I said, I am not an investigative journalist, just a nosy mom trying to protect her kid's schools.  Unlike Governor Christie and Acting Commissioner Cerf, I do not want to see for profit charter networks that are unaccountable to taxpayers "outsource the operation" of ANY kid's school, thank you very much.