Atlanta’s Latin Academy hears pleas, postpones decision on closing

Students and staff at an Atlanta charter school got a temporary reprieve from closure Thursday night.

After dozens of speakers pleaded with the board of Latin Academy, which is in dire financial circumstances board members said were caused in large part by past financial mismanagement and the alleged theft of more than $600,000, the board voted to postpone for a month a decision about closing the school.

The board had been slated Thursday to consider closing Latin Academy at the end of this school year. Now they’re giving families and staff time to come up with a plan to raise the $500,000-$600,000 board members say is needed to keep the school open.

“The uphill battle that we have to close this gap will not be easy,” board member Scott Harris said.

Before the board vote, parents, staff, students and community leaders offered to contribute financially themselves and organize fundraisers.

“Our scholars deserve a chance,” Latin Academy dean of students Andrew Fuller said.

Closure would leave hundreds of students looking for new schools and staff members searching for new jobs. Latin Academy had about 250 students in grades 6-8 this fall, according to state data.

As of December, the school had just $61,509 on hand and owed more than $500,000, according to recent financial records.

In recent months, the board had considered cutting expenses by reducing salaries and other expenses, board members said. The board also considered merging with another charter school and unsuccessfully sought funding from private foundations. The school has already dipped deep into its cash reserves, board members said.

The grim picture presented by the board conflicted with the assessments of the school’s principal and the current chief financial officer. In a report to the board, CFO Candy Yu wrote that with expense cuts, the school could “achieve positive cash flow” by the end of the year.

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. He has not been charged in the case.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has tried repeatedly to contact Clemons since first reporting on the alleged theft in October.

Latin Academy 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.

As a charter school, the school receives public funding but operates independently of the local school district.

Latin Academy is rated higher than about 80 percent of all Atlanta middle schools, 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. There are no plans to close the Fulton schools, a lawyer for those two schools told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.