Atlanta charter school considers closure after alleged theft

Financial mismanagement and the alleged theft of more than $600,000 from an Atlanta charter school threw the school into a financial pit too deep to scale, school officials say.

At a board meeting Thursday, the board of Latin Academy will consider closing the southwest Atlanta charter school at the end of this school year.

The vote comes as a top state education official criticized legislation that would set new financial training requirements for charter school financial officers.

The closure would leave hundreds of students looking for new schools and staff members searching for new jobs.

“We don’t want in any way to put families in a position where they’re being told later in the process…and then they don’t have the possibility of finding a school for their kids,” Latin Academy board chairman Kaseem Ladipo said.

Latin Academy offers “opportunities no other school offers,” said Lesley Phinazee, who has one daughter who will graduate from the school this spring and another who planned to enroll next year.

“Now I have to go out and find her a better education,” she said.

But the school had problems beyond financial solvency, and was put on probation this fall by both Atlanta Public Schools and the state Department of Education. The school wasn’t contributing to the state’s teachers pension fund on time or complying with laws protecting children with disabilities, according to state and district records. And a new chief financial officer seemed confused about state audit requirements.

In July, Latin Academy’s board reported that more than $600,000 was taken from the school through ATM withdrawals and to pay for dinners, non-work-related travel, bonuses to employees and “personal entertainment at local night clubs,” according to a police report.

Chris Clemons, the school’s founder, was one of two staff members with access to the accounts, school officials said. Neither staffer is currently employed by the school. A police report names Clemons as a suspect.

The school’s board has declined to release previous financial statements in response to requests made by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under state public records laws, saying the records are part of a police investigation. But as of December, the school had just $61,509 on hand and owed more than $500,000, according to recent financial records.

The bulk of that debt is due to the “suspicious activity” reported last year, Ladipo said.

Georgia charter schools are required to be nonprofit corporations and are generally responsible for their own debts, according to the Georgia Charter Schools Association.

Latin Academy, overseen by the Atlanta Public Schools, is rated higher than about 80 percent of all Atlanta middle schools, according to state data. As a charter school, it receives public funding but operates independently of the school district. It had about 250 students in grades 6-8 this fall, according to state data.

The school is one of three started by Clemons. The two others are overseen by the Fulton County school district. Clemons is also being investigated in connection with the case of more than $350,000 missing from those schools.

The Georgia Charter Schools Association supports legislation that would require training for charter school finance directors, but the Georgia Department of Education’s associate superintendent for charter schools recently told legislators he opposed the bill.

“While we strongly support the spirit of your bill…charter schools in Georgia are already held to an extremely high standard in this regard,” the Department of Education’s Lou Erste said in a written statement. “In fact, it is precisely because Georgia has such high financial control standards for its charter schools that we have not suffered like other states from charter school financial misdealing.” A Department of Education spokesman later told the AJC the department was open to increasing financial training requirements, perhaps through a different mechanism.

Georgia Charter Schools Association president Tony Roberts supports more training.

“Charter school finance directors that lack the expertise gained through more documented and charter-school-specific financial training put the long-term operational sustainability of schools at risk,” he said.

At a separate hearing Wednesday, Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, sparred with the author of a different bill that would limit training for charter school board members to six hours per year. He said it was a bad idea after the Latin Academy “fiasco.”

“If you are going to have authority over the education of our children, you ought to welcome more training,” Fort said afterward.

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Ty Tagami contributed to this report.