A $12,000 charge at a strip club. Thousands of dollars spent at Mercedes-Benz of Buckhead. ATM withdrawals of hundreds of dollars at a time.
The charges to Atlanta’s Latin Academy Charter School should have raised eyebrows. For the top state education officials and corporate executives on the school’s board, they should have set off earsplitting sirens.
Instead, the charges continued for years, siphoning more than $600,000 in taxpayer dollars that should have been spent on students.
Christopher Clemons, the school’s founder, has been charged with fraud and theft in the largest such case in Georgia charter school history.
Clemons left Atlanta after the losses were discovered.
He left a rented townhome strewn with Hermes boxes, lease paperwork for a new luxury car, used boarding passes and a Rolex receipt.
He left the school so financially troubled that board members closed it.
He left nearly 200 children with few options.
And he left a cautionary tale for Georgia’s growing charter school movement. Latin Academy, with its all-star board and experienced leader, seemed on track to thrive. But behind that facade of apparent success, the school spent millions of tax dollars with little public scrutiny and operated with a lack of public input foreign to many traditional public schools.
Latin Academy’s academic performance ranked in the top 25 percent of all Atlanta middle schools in an area where neighborhood middle schools are better known for hallway chaos than academics.
“The kids have become a casualty,” said Tameka Rivers, whose 13-year old son was a student. “The kids are the ones that get the bad end of everything.”
Clemons is now in a Colorado jail awaiting extradition. His court-appointed attorney declined to talk to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
As a charter school, Latin Academy was publicly funded but operates independently and had its own school board.
The board scrutinized test results, homework scores and student discipline data, but there’s little evidence they paid the same attention to school finances. The board trusted Clemons, with his Ivy League pedigree and reputation as a rising star in the charter school world.
“Should we have done a little more?” asked board chair Kaseem Ladipo. “Yeah, we could have.”
“But the reality is that I would never ever expect a board to micromanage a school leader because of the assumption that they would steal from the school.”
Now is the time
Latin Academy’s downfall sounds a sharp warning for Georgia’s growing charter school sector, whose enrollment has increased more than three-fold in ten years, reaching 91,000.
Flexibility from state regulations and slimmed down administrations give charters the chance to teach in ways public schools can’t. But at Latin Academy, those conditions allowed hundreds of thousands of dollars to be taken.
The theft prompted state legislators to toughen charter school financial regulations this year by requiring more financial training for charter school boards and barring school leaders like Clemons from also handling finances.
But at the same time, dozens of traditional school districts are gaining charter school-like freedom from regulation by becoming “charter systems,” which push more decisions away from the central office to local boards.
Now is the time to “bring charter schools up to the same standards” as traditional public schools, said Rep. Rahn Mayo, who authored the charter school training legislation.
“We’re going to witness growth in the education sector with additional charter schools receiving funding,” he said. “The sooner we implement policies to protect public dollars being managed by charter schools the better off we are.”
No “little” problems
When Christiana Johnson’s daughter applied to Latin Academy, Clemons came to their home and interviewed her, Johnson said, something no educator had done before.
Informed of the theft allegations earlier this year, she shook her head. “That doesn’t sound like Mr. Clemons at all,” she said.
Clemons was a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania who held an MBA from MIT’s business school.
By his own account, he helped start more than 30 charter schools nationally. He told colleagues at a national charter school training group he worked for that he could write an application that would win them a charter school in any state, former colleague Jeff Weiner said.
As head of a University of Notre Dame program training school leaders, Clemons was an “upstanding and values-driven leader,” said Notre Dame’s the Rev. Timothy Scully. “His performance as a member of our team was unassailable.”
In 2011, Clemons asked the Atlanta school district for permission to start Latin Academy and give low-income, mostly black students a shot at the kind of education associated with elite prep schools.
“There are no “little” problems; every seemingly small problem can quickly lead to more serious problems. No misbehavior goes unchecked at any time for any reason,” he wrote in the application. “Studies show that it is not the severity of the punishment that deters people from breaking rules, but quick and consistent application of consequences.”
Clemons himself planned to lead ethics classes.
The school’s appointed governing board came to include Kathleen Mathers, who had served as head of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement and led a state investigation into cheating in Atlanta schools, and Eric Wearne, previously deputy director at the same agency.
The board included MBAs like Coca-Cola executive Scott Harrison as treasurer, and Ladipo, who is head of the local arm of national education nonprofit Horizons. It also included LaNiesha Cobb, a vice president with Teach for America, corporate attorney Veronica Davis and Jamal Booker, a manager at Coca-Cola. None besides Ladipo responded to messages from the AJC.
Weeks before the board voted to close the school, they appointed two parents as members.
The board hired Aja Kweliona as the school’s new principal in spring 2015. The board was cutting ties with Clemons because he hadn’t followed through on requests for fundraising plans, marketing materials or staff development, Ladipo said.
She met Clemons to get access to the school’s bank account. As the two got coffee afterwards, she said Clemons calmly told her, “Now you know all of my dirty laundry.” It was the last time she saw him.
Kweliona reviewed bank statements and saw transfers to Clemons and other staff; tens of thousands of dollars in cash withdrawals; and charges for airfare and hotel rooms and at Hooters, Twin Peaks, and the strip clubs Goldrush Showbar and the Cheetah Lounge. In some cases, the charges totalled more than $5,000 on a single date.
She told the board immediately.
A month later, school officials met with police. Soon after, the boards of two other Fulton County charter schools Clemons founded reported more than $100,000 missing. Those schools remain open.
People who want to steal
“Up to that moment, there had never been a time when we felt that we shouldn’t trust him,” Ladipo said.
Ladipo said board members met monthly with Clemons and operations director Erica Anthony to review financial records. But he said they never saw bank statements and now he believes the records they did see were doctored.
There’s little support for that explanation in school records. The monthly financial reviews are rarely reflected in board minutes — Ladipo told the AJC they were too routine to be mentioned. And the board has declined to provide financial records in response to a Georgia Open Records Act request, citing a legal exemption that allows school boards to withhold records connected with ongoing investigations of employee wrongdoing.
But an audit found Latin Academy didn’t follow its own accounting policies and procedures: The same person approved invoices and signed checks. Large checks were issued with a single signature. There was no policy on the use of the school’s debit card
Anthony, whom Ladipo described as the only person besides Clemons with access to the school’s bank account, declined to speak with the AJC. Atlanta police say their investigation is ongoing.
Georgia Department of Education officials said they were unaware of any other thefts from Georgia charter schools.
Tony Roberts, head of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said it’s hard for a volunteer board to stop someone determined to steal.
“When you get someone who’s bound and determined to break the law, to embezzle, there isn’t a rule or procedure that can stop that from happening. We’re talking here about the evil nature of mankind,” he said.
But ultimately, a charter school’s governing board is responsible for the school’s finances, he said.
“The board has a fiduciary responsibility to oversee the financial well being of a charter school and to make sure that it’s being a good steward of tax dollars,” he said.
Ladipo admitted the board “could have done a little bit better.”
But Clemons fooled others too, including auditors and Atlanta Public Schools, which issued the school’s charter. Neither cited financial problem until after the missing money was discovered.
“This is not just a Latin Academy board could have done more” situation, Ladipo said.
“People who want to steal will steal.”
What not to do
While the board claims Clemons withheld information, some parents complained about the board’s own lack of transparency.
The board routinely met behind closed doors without stating the reason, a violation of the Georgia Open Meetings Act. The board voted unanimously to fire, with no explanation, its parent liaison and Kweliona after they questioned board decisions.
In May, the Atlanta school district told Latin Academy’s board the district planned to terminate the school’s charter, effectively closing it. The board acted first and voted to close the school.
Cascading financial problems discovered after the alleged theft put the school in a hole too deep to scale, Ladipo said.
Tameka Rivers, a parent who was named to the Latin Academy’s board shortly before the vote to close, is still looking for answers.
“I want to know when did they actually know? When did the investigation start? Why weren’t the parents notified until October? Why weren’t parents given the chance to say earlier ‘I want to send my children to another school?’ Those are the questions that I hope one day to find out,” she said.
“In the meantime, if I’m ever on another board I know what not to do.”