Georgia’s been spared many of the charter school scandals occurring in other states, likely because the approval process here moved at a slower speed. (Proponents would argue the process moved at a glacial pace.)
However, the charter movement is now well established in Georgia. The increased number of charters — which operate with great autonomy over how dollars are spent — could mean more of the financial mismanagement that’s plagued schools in Florida and Ohio.
An AJC story this week reveals troubling allegations about the much heralded Atlanta Latin Academy and its charismatic and well-regarded founder Chris Clemons.
Police have called Clemons a suspect in the disappearance of $600,000 from the school.
That is likely to shock people who knew him. The Georgia Charter Schools Association describes Clemons as “visionary” on its website.
A 2007 profile of him by a MIT publication — Clemons holds a MBA from the prestigious school — quotes a former colleague as saying, “He’s brilliant. I don’t know anyone who can keep up with his mind…If he believes in something, watch out. The sky is the limit for him.”
In a 2012 column for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Clemons chronicled the road to opening Latin Academy, writing somewhat prophetically: “Nothing along that journey was simple or came easy—for instance, our start-up year coincided with a tension-filled and controversial redistricting process within APS that placed charters (particularly new ones) under an increased level of public scrutiny.”
Now, it seems there may not have been enough public scrutiny.
AJC education writer Molly Bloom wrote the piece:
Atlanta police are investigating the alleged theft of more than half a million dollars from a charter school, according to a police report.
More than $600,000 was taken from Atlanta Latin Academy bank and credit card accounts through ATM withdrawals to pay for dinners, nonwork-related travel, bonuses to employees and “personal entertainment at local nightclubs, ” according to the report.
School founder Chris Clemons and the school‘s operations director were the only staff members with access to both accounts, school board chairman Kaseem Ladipo said.
The discovery that the money was missing came this summer soon after Clemons and the operations director left the school to work for an Atlanta foundation, founded by Clemons, that would help start similar charter schools, Ladipo said. The school principal left around the same time, he said.
The police report names only Clemons as a suspect. Clemons did not respond to phone messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.
After Clemons’ departure, board members discovered unpaid bills and financial statements showing what appeared to be nonschool-related spending and contacted the police and the Atlanta school district, Ladipo said.
Atlanta Public Schools authorized Atlanta Latin Academy, but as a charter school it operates independently from the system and has its own governing board.
Ladipo said it appears inaccurate financial statements were presented to the board. “Since the school was still functioning, classes were still happening and the lights were still on … we didn’t think that there were any issues with our finances, ” he said.
The school’s latest independent audit showed no financial management problems, Atlanta schools spokeswoman Jill Strickland said.
The Latin Academy board hired an external chief financial officer, established new financial safeguards and started requesting more frequent financial updates from new school leaders, Ladipo said. “What we’ve learned is that we have to put even more systems in place, ” he said.