OAKLAND -- An Alameda County judge ruled that a high-performing Oakland charter school can stay open and that the school district erred in revoking its charter in 2013 after it alleged that founder Ben Chavis funneled $3.8 million to himself through school contracts.

The school district, its school board and former Superintendent Tony Smith applied the wrong standard of law when it revoked the charter of American Indian Model Schools, Judge Evelio Grillo said in a July 17 ruling.

Grillo said the district failed to consider academic performance as the most important factor in revoking the charter as required by state education law. In the ruling, Grillo noted that the American Indian middle school had the highest Academic Performance Index for all of Alameda County in 2012 and was the fourth-highest performing middle school in the state that year.

American Indian School principal Ben Chavis, 2005
American Indian School principal Ben Chavis, 2005 ( Sean Connelley/ Tribune)

Grillo's ruling, spurred by a school lawsuit against the school district, tosses out the school district's revocation and puts proceedings back in the hands of the school district.

"Basically, we're just pleased this is over with and we can stop spending a lot of money on lawyers, and we can get back to putting energy into educating children," said Alice Spearman, secretary to the AIMS school board and a former Oakland school board member who lost her seat in a November 2012 election.

Oakland schools spokesman Troy Flint said the school board and the administration has not yet decided what to do next and that the district is disappointed at the ruling.


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"But we respect the ruling and appreciate that it affirmed OUSD's claim of serious financial wrongdoing at AIMS," Flint said. "Ultimately, the judge determined that the strong test score performance at AIMS outweighed the concerns raised by misuse of public funds for personal enrichment."

Spearman defended Chavis, who she said still has three children at the school and is still friends with some of the administrators and teachers but is not involved in day-to-day operations.

"There were allegations the school district made that were never proven, that's the sad part about it," Spearman said. "They made all these allegations about fiscal impropriety, but nothing was proved. From my standpoint it was almost like a personal vendetta against Ben by the Oakland school board."

When it revoked the charter and tried to shut the school down, the district instead focused on the financial misdeeds of Chavis. The FBI and the IRS opened a criminal investigation into the schools and Chavis last year, and agents served search warrants, taking away records from the schools and his mother-in-law's home.

No charges have yet been filed.

A state of California audit, performed in June 2012, found that Chavis misappropriated school funds and broke state laws, including the Political Reform Act, when he directed the school to hire his companies. The audit also found that upon learning about the alleged financial misdeeds, the AIMS board did not make significant changes or take any measures to recover the funds. It was later revealed that one of the board members resided in Chavis' home.

Spearman said since the school district first moved to revoke the charter in the spring of 2013, the school hired a charter management corporation to oversee the schools' financial dealings and it bought the downtown Oakland building from Chavis that houses the elementary school "just to make sure we separated ourselves from him."

Reach Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/douglasoakley