A West Oakland church school that makes its students ask for money at BART stations appears to have vastly inflated its enrollment numbers to collect extra taxpayer funding, some of which goes to a teacher who former students say physically abused them and other children.
And for years, St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church and private school, which was founded in 1978, has operated with virtually no government oversight despite repeated red flags.
The K-12 school is run by Robert Lacy, 79, a pastor who pleaded guilty in 2007 to theft of government money for taking his deceased father's Social Security payments.
Documents and interviews show St. Andrew has inflated its enrollment numbers, allowing school officials to reap tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funding they might not have deserved.
The Oakland Unified School District -- which oversees federal funding to aid the education of low-income students and others in private schools -- allocated $50,000 this school year to St. Andrew. The funding was based on the school's claim that it had 195 students, including 61 low-income students.
Over the previous four school years, Oakland Unified paid a total of $173,500 in federal funds to St. Andrew based on its enrollment.
Yet former students and their parents said the school had no more than 30 students, and sometimes much fewer. An Oakland fire inspector said the school isn't allowed to have more than 58 people in its classrooms.
Some parents said they paid up to $400 per month for tuition, while others said the school was free -- as long as their children raised funds at BART stations. A few students said they were made to solicit donations under threat of punishment or bad grades. The pastor, meanwhile, owns a Cadillac Escalade Platinum Edition.
Several former students said the elder pastor's son, Robert Lacy Jr., a teacher and church leader, would hit, kick and throw things at students. Nine-year-old Corey Butler said Lacy Jr. hit him with a belt on his behind and across his hand. Butler said he saw Lacy Jr. abuse other students, too.
"He kicks people. He kicked the big kids," Butler said. Butler's mother took him and his siblings out of St. Andrew this year.
"I didn't like it at all," said Genius Wesley, a 9-year-old whose father pulled him out of the school this year. "The teacher was mean, and he always yelled at people. He hit this little kid all the time."
In an interview, Lacy Jr. declined to answer questions about inflated enrollment numbers and said the students' statements about abuse are not credible, calling them hearsay. He said the students represent a small sample of those who attended St. Andrew and indicated that their families may be disgruntled for other reasons.
"Maybe we just didn't give everything that they wanted us to give, money and stuff like that. Maybe that's the problem," he said. "Maybe we wouldn't excuse their unexcused absences."
Asked directly whether he hits children, Lacy Jr. said, "I don't have any history of ever doing anything like that." Asked whether he does it currently, Lacy again responded, "I don't have a history of that."
State and local officials note that the federal funding doesn't go directly to the school, but rather to "independent" consultants to provide services.
Most of the federal money for St. Andrew went to contracts for Carrie Banks -- who married the elder pastor in 1999 and teaches kindergarten through third grade -- and to Lacy Jr.
The money is doled out based on the number of students at the school. Nearly every year since 2003, the school reported to the state Department of Education that it had 195 students -- exactly 15 in each grade.
An Oakland Fire Department inspector visited the school last month in response to a citizen complaint and observed 15 to 20 students.
Lacy Jr. declined to say how many students attend St. Andrew. "That's private information," he said.
"All I can tell you is I teach here every day," he said. "And I give my time for the students, and I care for these students that are here."
So far, no authorities have taken the school to account.
Troy Flint, a spokesman with Oakland Unified, said someone should do an investigation, but the district doesn't have the authority or capacity to do it.
"Because we are not given regulatory powers to the degree needed to police these schools, it does allow for loopholes and for certain unscrupulous people to take advantage," Flint said. "I can't say for sure that's what happened in this case, but there are a lot of suspicious indicators, and I do think it warrants a second look."
William Nownes, who oversees private school funding for Oakland Unified, said he accepts the enrollment numbers provided by the school without further investigation.
Six former students agreed to talk to California Watch about their experiences at St. Andrew. Accompanied by their parents in separate interviews, they described a pattern of verbal and physical abuse at the school.
Butler's 14-year-old brother, Le'Gerrius Holt, said Lacy Jr. -- who goes by Rev. Robert at school -- hit him over the head with a book in class because he had called the teacher a "fool."
"Rev. Robert said when we die -- he already know we're going to die before him -- at our funeral, he's going to go up to our parents and tell them not to cry because we're going to go to hell," Holt said.
Butler's 13-year-old sister, La'asia Holt, said the elder Lacy told her, "If I go home and tell another lie to my mother, he gonna beat me himself," she said. "I felt threatened."
The elder Lacy did not respond to requests for comment.
Courtney Corbitt, a 12-year-old whose mother pulled her out of St. Andrew this year, said she witnessed Lacy Jr. throw objects -- such as a roll of duct tape -- at other students, telling her once, "You might want to duck."
California Watch is part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, the country's largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.californiawatch.org.
Evans can be reached at 510-809-2209 or firstname.lastname@example.org.