The head of an Oakland charter school organization that has made national headlines for its low-income students' outstanding test scores is now faced with mounting evidence that he used his position to enrich himself and his family.
A state investigation into allegations of operational fraud and other unscrupulous activity by Ben Chavis -- a businessman who has also served, off and on, as director of three publicly funded but independently run charter schools named American Indian -- and his wife, who provided financial services to the school, cited numerous examples of financial conflicts of interest and fraudulent expenditures.
The American Indian Model's middle schools have the best test scores in Oakland and among the highest in the state; its high school also has near-perfect scores. In his book, "Crazy like a Fox," Director Ben Chavis touts the model's success and ridicules the public school system for wasting tax dollars, arguing that schools don't need more money.
But in recent months, Chavis' own stewardship of public funds has come under scrutiny. The state Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team, which produced the scathing report, was asked by Alameda County Superintendent Sheila Jordan to investigate allegations made by a former employee of financial abuses -- including a $100,000 salary he took during at least one year of his retirement.
Now that auditors have found significant evidence to back those claims, Chavis could soon find himself the subject of a criminal investigation. Jordan announced Wednesday she would forward the case to the District Attorney's office, as recommended by the audit team. Jordan said she also wrote a letter to Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith, asking the district to consider revoking the schools' charters.
"The lack of oversight by the AIMS board and the unethical practices by its founder are unacceptable and an abuse of the public trust," Jordan said.
Between mid-2007 and the end of 2011, the school paid Chavis, his wife, Marsha Amador, and their various real estate and consulting businesses about $3.8 million, the auditors found. Many of those payments were made with state and federal facilities grants in the form of construction contracts to Chavis' companies -- business deals for school construction work that never went out to bid.
Meanwhile, the school's weak governing board did little to stand in the way, auditors found. For a short period of time last year, Chavis served on the board while he was employed as the organization's director and his wife was handling the books.
"The lack of due diligence and internal controls by the governing board has effectively granted the founder and his spouse unrestricted access to the assets of the organization and implied authority to enter into a variety of business arrangements for personal gain," the report stated.
Other findings included the opening and closing of bank accounts without approval and $25,700 in credit card purchases billed to the school with no authorization or apparent benefit to the school. They included airfare, restaurant, hotel and retail bills from out-of-state, including the North Carolina town where Chavis owns a farm; DirecTV; Giants tickets; and costs related to another venture, which foundered after the investigation became public -- the opening of a charter school in Arizona.
Chavis announced his retirement before the start of 2007-08 school year and returned to the school as director in 2011. He said at a recent hearing that he was a paid adviser during some of the time in between.
Chavis could not be immediately reached for comment.
Although Chavis did not found the original school, his name and reputation are most closely associated with the organization. A Lumbee Indian from North Carolina, he overhauled the academic program when he took over as director of the original school in East Oakland's Laurel District in 2000.
The new curriculum emphasized reading, writing and math and eliminated much of the school's Native American cultural teachings. Chavis instilled a strict and unorthodox discipline system that would bring notoriety to the school, sometimes using humiliation to motivate students to behave.
The most famous example of Chavis' brand of discipline is a student head-shaving that took place at a school assembly, with parent permission, after the boy was caught stealing. Today, few if any of the school's students are Native American.
Chavis announced his retirement shortly after the Oakland school district's charter schools office began raising concerns about his conduct. That spring, the East Bay Express published a story about an explosive incident involving a Mills College professor and graduate students who had come to tour the school. An African-American graduate student said Chavis cursed at him and aggressively kicked him out of the school -- claims that Chavis later acknowledged to be true, saying it was because the student came late.
The Oakland school district's charter school office, under new leadership, again expressed concerns this year when one of the three schools, American Indian Public Charter School II, applied for a renewed charter. The charter office recommended that the Oakland school board deny the charter renewal, potentially closing the school.
But at a packed hearing in which Chavis entered to rousing applause, the Oakland school board went against the charter school office's recommendation and, in a 4-3 vote, allowed the high-performing school to stay open.
Chris Dobbins, an Oakland school board member who supported the school at that meeting, said Wednesday afternoon that he couldn't "tear the school apart" because of the alleged improprieties of its leader. Even now, he said, he didn't have an easy answer.
"At the end of the day, it's hard to argue those test scores," he said. "It's a really hard question."
The Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance team published the below findings about apparent conflicts of interest and misappropriation of funds at American Indian Model schools -- mostly by its founder and current director, Ben Chavis: