Massive charter school theft sounds warning for Georgia’s charter schools

Kathleen Mathers (center), Latin Academy board member, speaks during a meeting earlier this year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Kathleen Mathers (center), Latin Academy board member, speaks during a meeting earlier this year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

By Molly Bloom

How do you not notice $600,000 is missing?

That’s what parents and staff at Atlanta’s Latin Academy Charter School asked as the extent of the theft from their school — the largest theft in Georgia charter school history — was revealed.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:

The charges to Atlanta's Latin Academy Charter School should have raised eyebrows. For the top state education officials and corporate executives on the school's board, they should have set off earsplitting sirens.

Instead, the charges continued for years, siphoning more than $600,000 in taxpayer dollars that should have been spent on students.

Christopher Clemons, the school's founder, has been charged with fraud and theft in connection with the missing money.

Academically, Latin Academy was one of the top-performing middle schools in Atlanta. But the AJC found little evidence that the school's all-star board scrutinized the school's finances with the same attention they devoted to tracking its academic performance.

Latin Academy, with its all-star board and experienced leader, seemed on track to thrive. But behind that facade of apparent success, the school spent millions of tax dollars with little public scrutiny and operated with a lack of public input foreign to many traditional public schools.

The board's chairman, Kaseem Ladipo, told the AJC the board's finance committee met monthly with Clemons and the school's operations director, but were shown doctored financial statements.

It's hard to tell if that's true:

The board declined to provide copies of board financial presentations in response to a Georgia Open Records Act request, saying releasing the records would hamper their investigation of possible employee wrongdoing. The board also rejected Open Records Act requests for the financial audit the school board paid for.

And more recently, the board has ignored Open Records Act requests for copies of a settlement agreement with a loan company in connection with a $600,000 loan Clemons took out on the school's behalf, possibly once again spending thousands more taxpayer dollars with little public scrutiny.

This case is getting national attention with charter school critics contending it illustrates the lack of oversight of charters. Latin Academy had impressive leadership. The school's appointed governing board came to include Kathleen Mathers, who had served as head of the Governor's Office of Student Achievement and led a state investigation into cheating in Atlanta schools, and Eric Wearne, previously deputy director at the same agency. The board included MBAs like Coca-Cola executive Scott Harrison as treasurer, and Ladipo, who is head of the local arm of national education nonprofit Horizons. It also included LaNiesha Cobb, a vice president with Teach for America, corporate attorney Veronica Davis and Jamal Booker, a manager at Coca-Cola.

It would be a challenge to get a more notable board and yet $600,000 was misspent in seemingly blatant ways. Are there fatal flaws in charter school oversight in Georgia?