Parents Keisha Spells, left, and Renee Sewell cry after an emotional meeting where the Latin Academy charter school board voted to close the school Thursday evening May 5, 2016. / bgray@ajc.com
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

Atlanta charter school where $600K allegedly stolen will close

A troubled Atlanta charter school will close at the end of this school year, the victim of alleged theft by the school’s founder and mismanagement.

Closing Latin Academy, a public charter school overseen by the Atlanta school district, will leave hundreds of students with few alternatives besides the low-performing traditional neighborhood schools many left behind.

“You are going to throw our children to the wolves,” parent Renee Sewell told the school’s board Thursday night.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of local school districts.

Latin Academy’s problems became public last year after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that more than $600,000 was taken from the school to pay for dinners, non-work-related travel, bonuses to employees and “personal entertainment at local night clubs.” School founder Chris Clemons has been arrested in connection with the alleged theft.

The board voted 7-2 to close the school. Board members Tameka Rivers and Bob DeHaven, both parents of Latin Academy students, voted against closure.

“I find it hard to believe we cannot find a solution,” DeHaven said.

Latin Academy board chairman Kaseem Ladipo said fixing the school’s problems “was a climb that was steeper than we ever imagined.”

After the money was taken, the school struggled financially. In February, the board considered closing, but postponed a decision. The board cut staff salaries and other spending as parents, staff and students tried to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars the board said was needed to keep Latin Academy open.

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

Atlanta Public Schools informed the charter school’s board Wednesday it planned to move to terminate the school’s charter and close the school. The reasons the district cited include the failure to hire a “proficient school leader” and no indication the school has enough money to operate next year, according to a letter from Gayle Burnett, head of the school district’s charter school office.

Academics also played a role in the school district’s decision. Although Latin Academy is rated higher by the state than all but two other traditional Atlanta middle schools, it performs significantly below the state’s 50th percentile in all subjects except social studies, according to the school district.

“The combination of instability in finances, turnover of leadership, and lackluster performance over the past four years have led to the decision by this office to request the early termination of Latin Academy’s charter,” Burnett wrote.

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