Sunday, August 4, 2013

Financial Misdeeds Sinking Oakland Charter School

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- A high-performing charter school is one step closer to closing under the weight of an audit showing its former director broke the law by paying himself $3.8 million from school funds for construction and rental services. 

The Alameda County Board of Education Tuesday night voted 5-1 to uphold the Oakland school district's March 20 charter revocation of American Indian Model Schools based on conflict-of-interest laws, including the Political Reform Act. 

About 200 parents and students packed the meeting, begging board members to keep the school open. The former director, Ben Chavis, who now lives in North Carolina, also spoke at the meeting. 

"If there's $3.8 million missing, show me the checks," Chavis said. "They don't tell you the money I got (from the school) for construction I donated to the school. And I rented classroom space to the school at rates well below the market." 

The fate of the school and its 600 remaining students now rests in the hands of an Alameda County judge who will consider extending a temporary restraining order keeping the school open while it appeals to the state board of education. A hearing is set for July 8. 

The principals of Lincoln Elementary School, Bret Harte Middle School and Cleveland Elementary School said Tuesday night they are prepared to take students in the fall if the charter school closes after the court hearing. 

Oakland school officials testified during Tuesday night's hearing that they took into consideration the school's high academic performance in revoking its charter, but that the financial mismanagement tipped the scales toward closure. 

"We laid out three things we expected: a charter management organization to take over the books, appropriate steps to limit Chavis's actions at the school and a chance to get back the $3.8 million," said Oakland schools lawyer Jacqueline Minor. "They did not take the steps. Chavis wrote checks to companies he owned, which is outrageous." 

But a lawyer for the charter school, Aiko Yamakawa, said Chavis followed the law because he disclosed to the school board the contracts to his companies and recused himself from voting on them. 

"We have donations to the school, a lease at below-market rates, remodeling contracts below the bids the school got, and none of these are prohibited by the Political Reform Act," Yamakawa said. "We're talking about concerns here related to a founder who has left the school." 

The school's new director, Nabeeha Shakir, said the Oakland school district has done "irreparable harm" to the school by revoking its charter because half of its students have left. 

"Since I've been here and studied the information, there should be no connection between the allegations (against Chavis) and shutting down the school," Shakir said. "The allegations should not be heard before a school board but in court." 

Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at

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