Fulton charter schools try to put founder’s crimes behind them

Eyebrows raised and checkbooks closed when Davion Lewis talked about the charter schools he leads.

When he attended an education finance training session, the schools were name-dropped multiple times — as an example of what not to do.

It’s been nearly six months since Christopher Clemons, who helped found Latin Grammar School and Latin College Preparatory Charter School, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for committing the largest charter school theft in Georgia history.

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Now, Lewis is working with the two school boards to repair broken trust. A rebranding is underway that includes changing the schools’ sullied names, owning a building and enacting reforms.

“We don’t shy away from our past. We embrace it. But, it’s not who we are,” said Lewis, who joined the prep school’s board in 2016, after Clemons’ arrest, and is now executive director of both schools.

Clemons stole and caused losses of at least $1.2 million, including money from three metro Atlanta schools he helped found. The grammar and prep schools, whose charters are both authorized by Fulton County Schools, survived the fiasco. But Latin Academy Charter School, authorized by Atlanta Public Schools, shut down amid financial trouble.

The theft grabbed attention, not just because of its audacious scope but also because of how prosecutors said Clemons spent some of the money — on strip clubs and luxury vehicles.

Clemons directed money from Fulton County Schools that was supposed to go to the grammar and prep schools into his foundation’s bank account and entered into short-term loans and an equipment lease on behalf of the two schools without permission.

The Ivy League-educated school founder pleaded guilty in January to 55 theft and forgery counts.

The crime cast a shadow over the Latin schools and charter schools across the state.

“It’s still fresh on people’s minds,” said Tony Roberts, president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, to which the grammar and college prep schools belong. “People need to remember those bad things so we can learn from it.”

Statewide, that meant enacting charter school reforms aimed at theft prevention, he said. The association supported legislation, passed in 2016, that requires charter school boards to receive more financial training and bars a school’s principal or leader from simultaneously running the school’s finances.

At the grammar and prep schools it has meant addressing vulnerabilities and rebranding.

The schools are discarding the “Latin” monikers and adopting a new name, the RISE Schools.

A sign for Latin Grammar School and Latin College Preparatory School is displayed in East Point on Friday, June 29, 2018. Latin College Prep recently purchased the former Oak Knoll Elementary from Fulton County Schools. The school building has and will continue to house Latin College Prep (a middle school) and Latin Grammar (an elementary school). Now that the charter school has ownership of the property, they will be doing some renovation work to it - including beefing up security, adding an outside gate, and doing some classroom refreshing. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

RISE stands for “reaching innovative solutions in education” and is meant to signal an upward trajectory.

“You have some people who are forgiving and who are willing to take a chance and you have some people who aren’t,” Lewis said. “It’s not that this new branding suddenly means that the Latin brand never existed, but we need to move forward.”

The schools will continue to teach Latin, a hallmark of their programs. Lewis said they’ll evaluate the classical language element as they begin work to renew their charters, which expire in 2020.

The renamed RISE Grammar School will enroll an estimated 400 students in kindergarten through fourth grade next year and will add fifth grade the following year. RISE Prep School expects 340 students in sixth through eighth grades. Combined, they employ about 85 people.

The schools, which Lewis said lost some students during the scandal, enroll children from throughout the Fulton County Schools attendance area. Families come from as far north as Alpharetta and as far south as Fairburn, Hapeville and East Point.

Since opening in 2015, they’ve been housed in the former Oak Knoll Elementary School in East Point. The prep school agreed in May to buy the building for $1.73 million from Fulton County Schools.

“People invest more in people and things that have a sense of permanency, and so we are here. We own the space,” Lewis said. “It’s a sign that we are investing in the future, and I think that will make people feel reassured and more comfortable.”

The building’s new owner will spend the summer spiffing up the property. Security upgrades such as fencing and an electronic gate are critical. Thieves have broken into employee cars parked in the school lot multiple times. School windows have been smashed and about $100,000 worth of computer and technology equipment stolen, Lewis said.

Interior work includes installation of new technology equipment, setting up a math and science lab and refreshing the interior.

Davion Lewis (center), talks with guests during the RISE Schools groundbreaking ceremony at the school formerly called Latin Grammar School and Latin College Preparatory School in East Point on Friday, June 29, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Though they share a building, the two schools operate with two boards and two budgets. The school district provided about $3 million last year to each school. Fulton County Schools did a “thorough investigation” after the thefts were discovered, the district said in a statement. It credited the charter schools for doing an “excellent job” implementing new safeguards, including requiring multiple approvals and signatures for purchases and checks.

Roberts, the charter school association president, also thinks the schools are on the right track.

“I hope they can rebrand themselves, and people will eventually forget that Chris Clemons had his hands in that,” he said.

Lewis left the prep school’s board to become its executive director, first in a temporary role and then permanently. A couple of months ago, the grammar school named him its executive director as well.

He said Clemons was never an employee of the grammar and prep schools, though that didn’t keep him from causing trouble.

After the thefts were discovered, the schools hired a new business manager. The prep school board enacted new bylaws and policies and expanded from five members to 11. Small boards can be “shrouded in mystery,” meeting and then disappearing for a month, Lewis said. A bigger board allows more oversight and accountability, he said. None of the board members from the Clemons era are still serving, he said.

The grammar school currently has just three board members, though it plans to grow to as many as 11, said chairwoman Candace Tate, who joined in September after seeing how involved parents were in the school. She said the two boards are studying the potential of combining but are moving slowly before making a decision.

“We are simply trying to fulfill the vision of a great school that East Point deserves — not pivot away from the values we’ve held, but step into it (and) fulfill what we originally came to this community to do,” Tate said.

Davion Lewis (left), executive director, and Candace Tate (right), board chair for Latin Grammar School, talk during the RISE Schools groundbreaking ceremony at Latin Grammar School and Latin College Preparatory School in East Point on Friday, June 29, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Kelli Johnson said she considered moving from Union City because she was so concerned about sending her son to a low-performing or unsafe school. Instead, she enrolled him in 2016 at the prep school. He loves it, so much so that he’s asked his mom to turn down job opportunities elsewhere so he can finish eighth grade in the upcoming school year.

The teachers are enthusiastic, and the staff is open to parents’ suggestions, she said.

“We’ve had some changes. It hasn’t been perfect. I always believe it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Johnson said.

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