By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- In the 2½ years since American Indian Model Schools leader Ben Chavis left after a state audit showed he directed at least $3.8 million from the school to companies he owned, the school continues to pay him millions in rent and building purchases.
The bill has come to $8.6 million.
The bill has come to $8.6 million.
Now, new leaders at the high-performing charter school are attempting to get out from under Chavis' shadow by moving out of two classroom buildings and an office he rents to the school on 35th Avenue for $46,000 a month and by orchestrating the removal of three board members.
But the impending changes have caused turmoil at the school, including student walkouts over school board politics, a restraining order against a former board member, police intervention at a school board meeting, and teacher and staff turnover.
"We are trying to separate the school from Chavis," school board President Steven Leung said. "The school district would like to see us not be associated with him. I think we're in good hands."
Founded in 1996 and currently serving about 1,000 students, the American Indian Model Schools have established a strong record of academic success with a strict, test-oriented approach but have struggled in recent years with allegations of mismanagement and fraud.
Last year, the school paid Chavis $7.5 million to buy a building that houses a K-8 campus on 12th Street in downtown Oakland. Leung said the school had no choice but to buy because it didn't have anywhere else to go at the time.
An investigation and finding by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights that the 35th Avenue campus does not meet disability access requirements, coupled with a stalemate over who would make repairs, prompted plans to move from that facility.
New Superintendent Maya Woods-Cadiz, a former Oakland school district principal and administrator, and Leung hope that by moving 300 high school students to the 12th Street building and by moving 150 middle school students to Oakland's Bella Vista Elementary school for rent of just $38,000 a year, they can save money and fix their disability access problem without having to continue hounding Chavis to make repairs.
"Mr. Chavis has known about the conditions at that school for quite some time, but he doesn't want to fix it," Leung said. "The Office for Civil Rights has asked us to either fix it or move. We've sent multiple notices to Mr. Chavis."
But Chavis, who is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the IRS and FBI relating to his financial dealings with the school, called Leung's comments about his refusal to make repairs at the school a "damn lie" and referred to Woods-Cadiz as a "(expletive) loser."
Chavis, who lives in North Carolina, said he never received any notice from the school's lawyers asking him to make disability access repairs. He also acknowledged the rent at the 35th Avenue campus is high.
"I did charge them high rent, but when I was there I gave it all back so I could send the illegals to college," Chavis said. "I did work the system, but then I took my salary and donated it back to the school. If I'm a crook, we need more crooks, it sounds like to me."
The former AIMS leader said moving the 35th Avenue high school students to the school's 12th Street building and putting the middle school students at Bella Vista is "a stupid idea" because they will lose a gymnasium in his building and there won't be enough room for the high school students at the 12th Street building.
Leung and Woods said moving out of the campus will help the school move on from Chavis.
There is "no more Mr. Chavis, and we have a really strong board now," Woods-Cadiz said.
The school originally was primarily oriented toward American Indians. Chavis was hired in 2001, and soon after the student demographic started to change to a broader community.
For the next 10 years, the school's academic performance soared and it attracted more mostly low-income students of other ethnicities, but by 2012, things started to go wrong. An investigation by the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team reported finding evidence of fraud, misappropriation of funds and conflicts of interest. The investigation found that from 2007 to 2011, Chavis had directed $3.8 million from the school to companies he owned for contracts not approved by the school board.
In 2013, the Oakland Unified School District yanked the school's charter and Chavis stepped down. After Chavis left, the school fought back in court and won reinstatement of its charter last year.
Under Woods-Cadiz, the charter school has seen many changes, including the planned move of the 35th Avenue campus, the removal of one school board member, the resignation of two others and the firing of a beloved physical education teacher -- all of which has led to increased tensions at the school. Students have walked out of classes four times since March 24, when the school board ousted one of its members, Nedir Bey. Bey became a board member in 2012 after Chavis left the school, Chavis said.
Bey, who does not have any children at the school, came on campus April 20 and started yelling at staff, according to legal documents related to a restraining order against him. He returned on April 21 to a school board meeting and incited the crowd against Woods-Cadiz and board members in a way that "created the potential of physical harm and actual emotional harm," an initial petition for the restraining order said.
"We had to call the police because the meeting got very disruptive and unsafe," Woods-Cadiz said.
On advice of the school's lawyer, she declined to talk about the events leading to the restraining order. The school's attorney did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The restraining order protects Woods-Cadiz and 11 administrators and school board members from Bey. He is ordered not to harass, make violent threats, stalk, contact, come on campus or have any personal contact with those listed on the order.
"The reason we got the restraining order is for Ms. Woods-Cadiz's safety and her family's safety," Leung said. "He also got involved with the operation of the school, meaning he was trying to go to the office and wanting to see files and not going through proper channels. There were other incidents where staff did not feel comfortable with him."
The school also has hired a private security firm to make sure Bey does not come on campus.
Bey's attorney, Chris Dobbins, a former Oakland Unified School Board member, said Bey denies the allegations in the restraining order. A hearing over the allegations to make the order permanent, throw it out or modify it could come in a couple of months, Dobbins said.
"There were no threats or harassment," Dobbins said. "They also listed all the board members as being protected and there is no verification that Mr. Bey made any threats to them."
Bey, a former associate of Your Black Muslim Bakery, was charged in 1994 with abducting and torturing a man who ran afoul of the bakery. He pleaded no contest to felony false imprisonment and served a home detention sentence. In 1996, Bey launched a failed health care company with more than $1.5 million of city money that he never repaid.
Recent interviews with teachers and staff at the 35th Avenue campus reveal resentment and distrust over Woods-Cadiz's changes and support for Bey. Woods-Cadiz blames Bey for the student walkouts.
Teacher Daniel Eng, who has worked at the school for nine years, is quitting at the end of the year. This year, he said, has been the worst, with the planned move of the campus, the changes on the board and the student walkouts.
"Leaving without a job to go to, this speaks volumes for me if I lasted through all the other stuff the last few years," Eng said.
First-year teacher Cris Bautista, who teaches eighth-grade math, science, English and history at the school, replaced another teacher who quit in November, shortly after Woods-Cadiz arrived.
"It's been hard to teach in this atmosphere, with the student walkouts and the administrative turnover," Bautista said. "There are a lot of problems with the board and the administration, and it trickles down and it's harmful to the students. Every day something crazy happens."