OAKLAND -- Oakland's American Indian Model Schools organization has failed to fix the oversight failures that allowed for rampant conflicts of interest and misuse of public funds, Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith reported this week. On Wednesday night, the Oakland school board agreed, putting American Indian's three charter schools -- which boast some of the highest test scores in California -- one step closer to closure.
"I am not swayed by the fact that this school has great test scores," board member Jody London said. "It does not change for me that the people who operate this school have violated the public trust."
Last fall, OUSD gave AIM Schools' governing board 60 days to show it had cleaned up its act. A state audit, published in June, found the organization's founder, Ben Chavis, and his wife had funneled $3.8 million in public money through their various companies and contracts.
The organization's response -- which defended the contracts -- was disappointing, said OUSD board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge.
"I didn't need an argument. I needed a remedy. I needed a cure," Hinton Hodge said at a board meeting Wednesday night, after describing Chavis as an educational visionary. "I got an argument. I got a defense. I got a conspiracy."
A public hearing is set for Feb. 13, and a final decision will follow, possibly during a special meeting on March 20, said board President David Kakishiba.
If OUSD does revoke the charter this spring, the organization would have the chance to appeal to the Alameda County Board of Education and, later to the state board.
The five-month state investigation by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team came in response to a whistle-blower complaint of fraud. Alameda County Superintendent of Schools Sheila Jordan requested an investigation and later forwarded the findings to the District Attorney's Office, which has yet to file charges.
In the report, auditors identified $3.8 million in questionable expenditures, from construction contracts and lease agreements to mandatory summer programs, going to Chavis's companies -- all while his wife, Marsha Amador, handled the books. For a short period, Chavis served on the governing board while he was director. He was also the landlord.
The organization paid Chavis $850,000 annually to lease facilities that, if charged at the district's rate, would have cost just $162,000, according to the Oakland school district's latest report. Supporters of the school had argued Chavis had charged a lower rate than OUSD would have, the analysis found, but they were comparing apples to oranges: his monthly rate to OUSD's annual charge.
Parents, alumni and other supporters turned out again Wednesday in the charter organization's defense, highlighting the academic achievements at the schools. Some of the new board members, including former OUSD board members Toni Cook and Sylvester Hodges, urged OUSD to keep the school open.
"In my 40 years, that is the best educational program I've seen," said Ron Grant, who met some of the students who enrolled in a community college course that he taught and who now serves on the AIM Schools board. "If you close this school, you will be making a big mistake."
Some supporters -- even OUSD board member Chris Dobbins -- suggested this was all a personal vendetta against Chavis, a polarizing figure in the education world. Others acknowledged mistakes were made but argued that students shouldn't have to suffer because of the actions of adults.