Atlanta charter school reports $600,000 missing

Atlanta police are investigating the alleged theft of more than half a million dollars from a charter school, according to a police report.

More than $600,000 was taken from school bank and credit card accounts through ATM withdrawals and to pay for dinners, non-work-related travel, bonuses to employees and “personal entertainment at local night clubs,” according to the police report.

School founder Chris Clemons and the school’s operations director were the only staff members with access to both accounts, school board chairman Kaseem Ladipo said.

The discovery that the money was missing came this summer soon after Clemons and the operations director left the school to work for an Atlanta foundation, founded by Clemons, that would help start similar charter schools, Ladipo said.

The school principal left around the same time, he said.

The police report names only Clemons as a suspect.

Clemons did not respond to phone messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday.

After Clemons’ departure, board members discovered unpaid bills and financial statements showing what appeared to be non-school related spending and contacted the police and the Atlanta school district, Ladipo said. Atlanta Public Schools authorized Latin Academy, but as a charter school it operates independently from the system and has its own governing board.

Ladipo said it appears inaccurate financial statements had been presented to the board.

“Since the school was still functioning, classes were still happening and the lights were still on … we didn’t think that there were any issues with our finances,” he said.

The school’s latest independent audit showed no financial management problems, Atlanta schools spokeswoman Jill Strickland said.

“We are working in partnership with Latin Academy to ensure that a thorough investigation and forensic audit is complete and to ensure the long-term viability of the school. APS is optimistic that the school will continue to deliver a high-quality education to its students,” she said in a written statement.

The Latin Academy board has hired an external chief financial officer, established new financial safeguards and started requesting more frequent financial updates from new school leaders, Ladipo said.

“What we’ve learned is that we have to put even more systems in place,” he said.

Clemons, a magna cum laude Ivy League graduate with an MBA from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came to Atlanta with strong credentials: He’d served as chief financial officer of a Boston-based nonprofit that works to create high-performing charter schools nationwide, and he served as director of a University of Notre Dame school-leader training program, according to his resume.

Clemons told the AJC last year that he wanted to establish schools with a Latin and classics focus because he saw how well it prepared students for college – and how much they enjoyed it. He said he wanted to put schools in impoverished areas to give disadvantaged kids a chance to experience the classics too.

“We’re providing college-preparatory education options with Latin as a key part of our curriculum to populations that typically that’s not offered to,” Clemons said last year. “I’m passionate about demographics not determining the destiny of our kids and providing a high quality college-preparatory education to every student. This is the model through which we’re achieving it.”

Latin Academy attracted an all-star board, recruiting members from the Governor’s Office for Student Achievement, Teach for America and Coca-Cola.

Latin Academy opened in 2012 to serve middle school students living on the city’s west side. The school was supposed to be the first of many in Atlanta, Fulton County and elsewhere, all part of a network affiliated with Clemons’ Latin Academy Foundation.

Latin Academy severed ties with Clemons and his foundation this summer, Ladipo said.

“We wanted our school to be its own self-sustaining academy,” he said.

Two Fulton County-authorized charter schools Clemons helped start — Latin Grammar and Latin College Prep — opened in August. The schools are no longer associated with Clemons, Fulton spokeswoman Susan Hale said.

Hale said Fulton officials “have no reason to suspect any mismanagement.”

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