Education

High Drama as Oakland Charter School Cuts Ties with Unsavory Past
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.

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. 

Saving money 

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. 

Post-Chavis 

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. 

Turnover 

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."  

Controversial Oakland Charter School Gets Chilly Response in Quest for Classroom Space

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- A controversial charter school struggling to rid itself of a dubious management history is requesting classroom space from Oakland Unified School District, but it is facing resistance from parents, teachers and administrators.

A sign-waving group of teachers and students roared their approval Wednesday as the school board tabled a proposal to house 185 high school students from American Indian Model Schools in eight classrooms at Westlake Middle School on Harrison Street near Lake Merritt. 

And in late May, the school district rescinded an offer it made to the charter school for classrooms at Bella Vista Elementary School on East 28th Street after teachers and parents formed a group to oppose mingling the two groups of students. Teachers are still bitter over the fact that some of their best students were recruited away from the school to American Indian while the struggling students were rejected. 

The school district cited safety concerns related to a nearby park and the need to remove portable classrooms there in withdrawing the offer. 

"We received a written offer from them for Bella Vista, then at the last minute, they rescinded it," said American Indian school board President Steven Leung. "They offered us Westlake, but that's no good if people are protesting. It's another mess." 

Oakland school district spokesman Troy Flint said school groups oppose American Indian's request at Westlake because of the late-in-the-year decision for next school year, "opposition to charter schools on an ideological basis" and objections to sharing space. 

"We're legally obligated to find a place for them," Flint said. "They are public school students and they deserve a home that is suitable and conducive to a high-quality education." 

School board President James Harris said Wednesday night that "staff needs to do more due diligence on the relocation of American Indian Model Schools." 

Although Superintendent Antwan Wilson, who started a year ago, is an unequivocal supporter of charter schools, there is still bad blood between the two institutions. 

The school district in 2013 revoked American Indian's charter after a state audit found former director Ben Chavis siphoned off about $3.6 million from the school in contracts to companies he owned. Chavis left in early 2013. The school fought the charter removal in court and won reinstatement in 2014. 

But with a new superintendent who came from the Oakland Unified School District and new school board members, the school is trying to get out from under Chavis' influence. The school has been paying Chavis $46,000 a month to rent classroom space in three buildings on 35th Avenue but has given notice it will move out at the end of the month. 

The school also paid Chavis $7.5 million in 2014 to buy a separate building on 12th Street in downtown Oakland that it had been renting from him for years. 

Flint didn't rule out a final decision to house American Indian students at Westlake because the school can hold about 800 students and there are only about 400 there now. 

"They have some space in a section of the building that would be separate, and there are some portables in the back lot," Flint said. "There is plenty of room, and it won't be intrusive. And American Indian students are in high school, so there won't be a competition for students." 

At Wednesday night's school board meeting, middle school students and parents at Westlake talked of being "disappointed and disrespected" by the district's proposal, and they complained about possible overcrowding and "having our community ripped apart" by the move. 

"I'm not anti-charter; I'm just pro Westlake," said teacher Mary Prime-Lawrence. "These kids deserve our full attention." 


Teacher Randy Porter complained that the two groups "would be on top of each other" and that the school district wouldn't have floated the proposal if its staff "walked through and actually saw how we use this building." 


Death Threats for Teacher Who Questioned Stephen Curry's Value as Role Model 

By Doug Oakley
HAYWARD -- As local media falls over itself in a worship frenzy for Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, a high school English teacher here has received death threats for questioning Curry's legitimacy as a youth role model.
Mount Eden High School English teacher Matt Amaral on Wednesday was installing a home security system after receiving death threats on his Facebook instant messenger account for an essay he posted on his Teach4Real blog titled "Dear Steph Curry, Now That You Are MVP, Please Don't Come Visit My High School." 

You can view it at http://www.teach4real.com.

Hayward police confirmed Amaral reported the threats and that they are investigating. 

Amaral posted the provocative essay in mid May as part of a 10th-grade English lesson to show how to write an argument and grab attention online. Despite the threats, he said it's been well worth it. 

"I'm a teacher, and this is probably my greatest lesson," Amaral said. "My kids have witnessed this thing go to the front page of Yahoo! They've had television cameras in their class and heard me on the radio. It definitely started a dialogue about the role of sports in schools and about having a backup plan in terms of being a student. We know that 99 percent of the people interested in being a professional athlete are not going to realize that dream." 

In the piece, he says it's unfair to tell kids they can be the next Stephen Curry because most of what makes him a star, aside from hard-won talent, was already decided at birth. Curry's height, the luck of having a former NBA star for a dad who could coach him from day one, and money are all things beyond their control, he said. A visit to the school would only reinforce unrealistic expectations. 

"They already are very good at dreaming about being rich and famous, what we need them to do is get a little more realistic about what is in their control," Amaral wrote. "We need less of an emphasis on sports and celebrity in high school, because it is hurting these kids too much as it is." 

An NBA spokesman declined to comment on the essay, and Curry's agent did not immediately return an email seeking comment. An email to the Golden State Warriors also went unanswered. 

Since he posted his essay on May 14, Amaral and his school have been overrun with media seeking an explanation from the man who dared to question the legitimacy of their anointed hero. 

Amaral said in his essay that a visit by Curry to his school would be a huge hit with the kids, but it wouldn't be good for them. 

"What you won't see is most of these kids don't have a backup plan for their dream of being you," he wrote. "If you ask the boys on my campus what they are going to be when they get older, the answer will involve a sport. They will claim they are going to play in the NBA or NFL, and seeing you there will make them think they can actually do it." 

"You see Steph, once you leave my school, the boys here are not going to run home and finish that essay, which is one thing they could do about their future that is in their control," Amaral continued. 

Contacted at home on Wednesday as he was waiting for a technician to install his new home alarm system, Amaral said every kid on campus has read and debated his essay. 

"They're stoked, they think it's awesome and they're 100 percent behind me," Amaral said. 

But not everyone agrees including people like Jim Coplan, athletic director at Oakland Technical High School, where Seattle Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Josh Johnson went to school. Coplan said the two come to campus occasionally, and he is happy to have them as role models. 

"If Steph wants to come to our school, he's welcome," Coplan said. "I think it would be inspiring for a kid to see someone with the level of success Stephen Curry has and then say to himself 'I need to buckle down and study in order to be a success.'" 

He also said athletes as role models are the same as any other successful person who could inspire kids. 

"We had Jesse Jackson at Tech a week or so ago, and he's a role model kids could point to and say this is what I aspire to," Coplan said. "We don't turn down bank presidents to come and speak to a class because not every kid gets to be a bank president." 

Amaral said being an educator involves getting kids to think critically, consider unpopular views or go against the grain of popular sentiment. That's what he was trying to do with his essay. 

"It would be easy to craft a letter to Steph Curry and say 'come to my high school,' but can you craft a letter saying he shouldn't come?" Amaral said. "Evidently I'm the only one doing that." 

As Amaral was having his photo taken outside the school Thursday, the mother of one of his students stopped and gave him unsolicited props. 

"I support this teacher," said parent Gabriela Delhoyo. "He's very good. The students say they want to go to the NBA, but they won't get there. A lot of students don't have a Plan B, but you have to have a Plan B. Everybody needs it." 

Livermore Officials Attempt to Block Charter School Bond Finance Scheme
By Doug Oakley
LIVERMORE -- A charter school operator here is selling investors a $30 million municipal bond to finance the purchase of a new high school building, a seldom-used tactic for charters that has drawn the ire of the local school district which tried to block it.

The bond offering to individual and private investors is the second multimillion offering for building purchases undertaken by Tri-Valley Learning Corporation in three years. It already is paying off a $27 million bond it floated in 2012 for the purchase of its elementary and middle school campus here. 

Tri-Valley CEO Bill Batchelor said borrowing money from investors and paying about 6 percent interest frees up the charter school from having to lease old, dilapidated buildings from the school district, buildings that have often been closed for some time. 

"We don't have the ability to levy taxes like school districts do, so that's why we do these bonds," Batchelor said. 

Officials from the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, which authorized Tri-Valley's charter, worry the school is taking on too much debt and will end up diverting its operating budget to bond payments. In an attempt to scuttle the deal, the district paid an outside lawyer to speak against the bond issuance during a hearing to certify the bond's tax exempt status at the Alameda County Board of Supervisors earlier this week. Supervisors ignored the pleas, however, and unanimously approved the bond. 

"We're not opposed to them at all," insisted Chris Van Schaack, assistant school district superintendent who was interviewed after the hearing. "The only problem we have is if they get themselves in too much debt it becomes our problem. We authorized their charter, and if they are paying $1 million in yearly payments, they might not have money to pay for textbooks and to provide the academic program they promised in their charter petition. And the fact that they told us nothing about it, that kind of scared us." 

Batchelor counters that the school district just "doesn't like charter schools." 

"I was surprised to see them publicly oppose this," Batchelor said. "They have never formally come to us with questions or concerns about the financing that they have been aware of for a long time. I have to speculate that their concerns are just about our permanence in the community." 

The money from the bond money will go to purchase a building for the Livermore Valley Charter Preparatory, a high school which is currently in a building owned by the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District. And in a complicating twist, the bond will be partially paid back by a separate private school Batchelor is partnering with that will share the new building. Batchelor said he will manage the private school for which he does not yet have a name. 

Batchelor's Tri-Valley Learning Corporation also runs two charter schools in Stockton and one in San Diego. 

Batchelor said his Livermore charter schools, which have about 1,500 students, exist because parents want an alterative to the school district. 

"In places where school districts are doing well, there are no charter schools," Batchelor said. "Charters come in to these areas where parents believe an additional education choice is a necessity." 

Van Schaack said that if his district truly didn't want the charter in Livermore, it would not have included it in a recent parcel tax which brings them about $375,000 a year. 

Nicolas Watson, senior facilities adviser for the California Charter School Association, said about 40 charter schools out of about 1,200 in the state have used municipal bonds to buy facilities in the last year. That's a little over 3 percent of the total. 

"But it's grown in popularity in recent years," Watson said. "I think the bond market and investors are getting more comfortable with charter schools and how they are funded. There are not a lot of options for charter schools that want to buy or build buildings." 

Watson said school districts that worry about charter schools taking on too much debt should help out more financially. 

"They could spend some of their revenue to help with charter school facilities if they are opposed," Watson said. "We don't have any dedicated funding for buildings. We don't want schools to have to spend money on buildings that they could be spending on academics. There's no doubt we would prefer to have a steady spending mechanism for facilities, but that's not the way government works in California." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Sexual Harassment: Feds Interview Berkeley School Officials

Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
BERKELEY -- Federal investigators are interviewing staff and administrators about sexual harassment at Berkeley High School following the discovery of an Instagram page, created by male students last fall, that included photos of female students accompanied by disparaging sexual comments. 

Five boys were suspended in October for their involvement in the page. Parent Heidi Goldstein filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in December, saying that incident, as well as others, led her to bring the action. 

On Thursday, she said the school district was barring students from being interviewed by investigators this week. 

School district spokesman Mark Coplan denied that claim but was unsure whether any students had been interviewed. A spokesman for the Office for Civil Rights was not immediately available for comment. 

The investigation is the second such inquiry by the federal government around sexual harassment at the school in five years. An investigation in 2010 was started after a 16-year-old student sued her counselor for sexual harassment and filed a complaint with the office. 

A settlement in that case led to the formation of a parent-led sexual harassment policy subcommittee. The counselor also agreed to keep his door and window blinds open when students are in his office as part of the settlement of the separately filed lawsuit. 

In a letter emailed to parents late Wednesday night, Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Donald Evans and school board President Judy Appel said the school district has provided more than 1,000 pages of documents to investigators "in order for them to evaluate our best practices." 

Coplan said some parents at the school were "putting up posters saying BUSD is blocking the investigation and not letting kids talk to them." 

In the letter to parents, Evans and Appel said they worried the interviews would get in the way of teaching and they wanted parents to be notified beforehand. 

"We have raised these concerns with the office of civil rights, and we hope and expect that they will be resolved so that the investigation can be conducted and completed in a timely manner," the letter said. 

Goldstein said the school district has denied any student an interview with investigators. 

"The office of civil rights has asked to talk to students, but so far the district has not come forward and cooperated at all," Goldstein said. "Every proposal the office of civil rights has made with regard to how they engage with students, the district has said no." 

Rebecca Levenson, a parent on the school district's sexual harassment subcommittee, said the group worked for 38 months following the 2010 sexual harassment complaint to craft a new sexual harassment policy that included training for students and accountability for behavior. But the school board ignored the subcommittee and this month instead adopted a watered down "boilerplate" policy that did not include training or consequences. 

"We have a smart school board, but they are really just trying to cover their (expletive) instead of doing prevention work they are supposed to," Levenson said. "We begged each member separately and gave public testimony, and instead they turn around and adopt a boilerplate policy." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Oakland Schools Pass Financial Audit — First Time in 11 Years
By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- For the first time since it took a $100 million emergency bailout loan from the state in 2003, the Oakland school district turned in a passing grade on a financial audit. 

The bad news is that the latest audit completed by the State Controller's Office for the 2011-12 school year will not restore the district's bad credit. That won't happen until it completes an up-to-date audit showing the district can balance its books. 

That lingering bad credit has cost taxpayers at least $29 million in extra interest the district has to pay when it borrows money. 

"I worked on this audit in previous years, and the district's books were in much better order this time," state Audit Manager Kirk Ochoa told school board members last week when they approved the audit. "This is tremendous from what we had in previous years." 

The latest audit showed issues in the financial books amounting to $2 million related to inaccurate attendance records of students and inaccurate time sheets of federally financed employees. 

School board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge said the latest audit puts the district on the road to recovery and raises expectations of the public. 

"It's so reflective of our growth," she said during last week's school board meeting. "This is a public issue in terms of a level of confidence." 

The latest audit pales in comparison to the audit of 2007-08, which showed $124 million worth of problems, said Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the State Controller's Office. 

"The lower number of findings this time around indicates that they have followed recommendations on how to repair some of their bigger systemic problems in record keeping," Roper said. 

He said in the past audits, the district was not able to produce complete financial statements showing how much its assets were worth and where they were located. As a result, bond rating agencies withdrew the district's credit rating, and it now has to pay more when it borrows money, some of it financed by Oakland homeowners. 

School board member Jody London praised the school district's financial team for finally producing enough documents to auditors that resulted in a "qualified" opinion by the State Controller's Office. 

"On behalf of the voters of Oakland, who have been paying a penalty because we didn't have this every time we sold our bonds, I want to thank you," London said. 

But the district will continue to pay higher interest rates until the state is current in its audits. The state will continue to audit the district's books until it repays the $100 million loan, now at about $69 million. 

The latest audit took nine months to complete and the timing of future audits all depend on "access to their bookkeeping and how long it takes to get files that are requested," Roper said. 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

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