Fulton Science Academy officials deny audit claims

Fulton Science Academy Middle School officials say school system administrators are throwing "baseless" and "malignant" accusations at them because of their Turkish roots.

In response to a blistering audit released Tuesday by Fulton County school Superintendent Robert Avossa that questioned management and financial decisions by the academy, FSA board member Angela Lassetter said Wednesday the charter school has never misappropriated tax dollars.

The audit said the school imports workers from Turkey, but Lassetter said the award-winning charter school hires the best teachers, regardless of their background. Lassetter said the school's staff is disproportionately Turkish because officials can't find qualified American math and science teachers who will accept their low salary.

"I don't care if they are an alien with purple polka dots and red antennas," she said.  "I would give a visa to any teacher who can produce good results."

Further, she said, FSA has no ties to a charter school movement that school district officials said inappropriately funnels money to Turkish businesses.

About 120 charter schools nationwide are said to be run by followers of M. Fetullah Gulen, a prominent Turkish imam, making the loosely affiliated network one of the nation’s largest public school operators.

FSA does not promote Gulen theories in the classroom, Lassetter said.

"Nobody has met Fetullah Gulen," she said. "I don't ask our employees if they're Democrat or Republican or what religion they are. That's protected under the Constitution. I don't ask if they believe in the Gulen movement. I don't ask because I don't care. It's none of my business."

Kenan Senar, FSA's principal, said Gulen is very popular in Turkey and he has read some of his books.

"I read his books because I kind of like his teachings," he said.

Susan Hale, a Fulton school district spokeswoman, said the system conducted the $39,000 audit because the academy is going from a public charter school to a private school. Hale said the audit's findings have nothing to do with the ethnicity of FSA's staff.

Fulton schools and the State Board of Education rejected the 10-year-old school's application for a renewal of its charter. The school asked for a 10-year renewal and was instead offered three years but declined to accept.

The academy, which previously had about 500 students, will convert to a tuition-based school July 1. The academy has a record of high academic achievement. It was one of seven Georgia schools designated as a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Lassetter accused the district of not giving school officials a fair chance to respond to the audit before releasing it to the media.

The 75-page audit is based on facts school officials gave the auditors and FSA administrators were given plenty of time to respond to their findings, Hale said.

"With the things we learned in the audit, we had an obligation to share it with the public," she said.  "And that's what we did. We’re talking about questionable use of taxpayer dollars."

Auditors said they found “an environment of resistance and obstructionism” at FSA.

Lassetter said FSA staff fully cooperated with auditors after they verified their credentials. She said the final audit is full of inaccuracies and incomplete data.

Auditors found that FSA spent about $75,000 in immigration services for employees and their families. Lassetter said it's common business practice to pay for an employee's visa and moving expenses.

One of the reasons Fulton denied the school's charter was because of concerns that FSA employees were also on the board of the Grace Institute for Educational Research and Resources Inc., which did business with the school, creating a conflict of interest.

The FSA officials in question have since resigned from the board of Grace.

Grace is the only company that produces a software program that shares classroom worksheets, text books and letters home with students, parents and teachers, Lassetter said.

The school did, in fact, hire a handful of Turkish companies that worked at an "incredibly cheap" rate creating software, she said, adding that the vendor process was fair.

The school contracts with hundreds of vendors, of which only five are run by Turks, she said.

The audit said adults did not appear to pay their own airfare when students were taken on field trips to Turkey in 2011 and 2012. The audit also found that school officials did not conduct background checks on chaperones.

The adults' trip was separate from the students' trip, Lassetter said, therefore they didn't need background checks. Their trip was combined with that of the students to get cheaper airfare rates. The school didn't pay for anybody's trips, Lasseter said.

"These are nothing but allegations," Lassetter said. "It's just a report about what ‘I don't like about you.' Where is the law ever broken?"

Law enforcement officials contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday said they are not investigating the school.

FSA leaders said they plan to send the school board a more formal response in the coming days.

Lassetter cited the academy's academic success, waiting lists and nine prior audits.

"Georgia parents  want a charter school that's producing results," she said. "It's unfortunate that Fulton schools is trying to keep that from them."

After opening as a private school in July, she said, "We will be the same school that received the blue ribbon with the same teachers and administrators. Our program will only be better. We can now focus on education instead of bureaucracies."

Staff writers Nancy Badertscher and Rhonda Cook contributed to this report.

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