Here is the letter that Fulton Superintendent Robert Avossa gave school board members today regarding financial questions about the Fulton Science Academy Middle School:
Dear Board Members,
The school system’s responsibility to its charter schools goes beyond management, operations, and financial statements. We have an obligation to good public policy, financial stewardship, and to protect the welfare of all students. In FCS, there is an expectation that we will work in partnership with our charter schools, their staff, governing boards, and parents. Unfortunately with Fulton Science Academy Middle (FSAMS), that partnership failed. We will, however, use the insight gained from the relationship with FSAMS to guide us in creating better charter policy and establishing successful, productive relationships with all of our current and future charter schools.
As you know, in December the Fulton County Board of Education offered a 3-year contract to School FSAMS. They declined our offer, insisting on a ten-year contract. After the District voted to not renew FSAMS for a new charter contract, the school then sought approval from the State Board of Education as a state charter special school. The State Board of Education subsequently voted in May to deny a state charter to the school.
FSAMS will cease operations as a Fulton County charter school on June 30, 2012. To conclude the relationship with FSAMS, we conducted a complete review of its operations, including but not limited to, finances, charter compliance, and performance objectives. The purpose of the review was three-fold: 1) to ensure proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars and the welfare of Fulton County students; 2) to ensure the smooth transition of materials and assets to satisfy federal and state requirements; and 3) to gain insight from our experience with FSAMS and make adjustments to our practice in terms of working with current and future charters.
Due to unique concerns that came up during the FSAMS charter renewal process, an outside auditor, IAG Forensics, was selected to conduct the review to ensure objectivity and thoroughness. Those factors included:
1. The complexity of the school’s operations and financial practices
2. The school’s involvement with a $19M bond, its possible default, and related construction issues;
3. Concerns raised about the school during the renewal process
4. Concerns about how the closure of FSAMS may affect its two sister schools (Fulton Sunshine Academy and Fulton Science Academy High School)
5. Lack of internal District capacity to conduct such an extensive review.
The detailed report from IAG Forensics shows many findings and concerns and is attached for your review Specific issues discussed in the report include:
1. Inappropriate vendor relationships, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest
2. Concerns regarding the $19 million construction bond
3. Lack of appropriate safety procedures for students during international field trips
4. Poor security practices related to background criminal checks for staff
5. Federal immigration issues related to staff
6. Poor record and bookkeeping
7. The lack of cooperation by FSAMS with the audit
While staff is still contemplating improvements we can make in light of this report, some areas have already been identified:
1. Regular and in-depth financial reviews of all charter schools;
2. Student safety
3. Establishment of standards for transparency in finances, operations and governance
An ancillary yet critical issue that needs to be addressed is the future of FSAMS’s two sister schools, Fulton Sunshine Academy and Fulton Science Academy High School. The report indicates that there is a sharing of leadership, operations, and commingling of funds between FSAMS and the two sister schools. Due to the host of issues and concerns raised in the report regarding FSAMS, I now have great concern regarding the extent to which the same problems in management may exist at the other two schools. The findings leave me no other option but to commission a similar audit to be completed as soon as possible to gauge whether similar wrongdoing is taking place at those schools.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog