Fulton school chief on charter school audit: Great concerns over problems at sister schools

Here is the letter that Fulton Superintendent Robert Avossa gave school board members today regarding financial questions about the Fulton Science Academy Middle School:

Here is a link to the audit.

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

30 comments Add your comment

Ron F.

June 5th, 2012
5:23 pm

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

So, why wasn’t the parent board aware of this? Why weren’t these issues addressed by the school itself? Hmmmm, maybe the “conflict of interest” was with some of the very people charged with the responsibility of oversight. I can only hope the state commission which will likely be approved by the vote in November will consider this information. One of my biggest concerns about charters is lack of oversight of the public money they are given. I wonder how the rest are monitored, if at all, by local or state authorities.

skipper

June 5th, 2012
5:27 pm

@Ron F.,
With the job the regular schools are doing, this sounds like a steller performance in comparison!

[...] But the reality is that the financial practices of the school were so complicated that the professional audit team had a hard time making sense of where money was going, to whom and for what. The cost of the audit to taxpayers will likely be $35,000 in large part because an uncooperative Fulton Science Academy Middle School leaders blocked the auditors. You can read this blog to see how the school leadership slowed the audit. There is also a blog up with the letter that the school chief sent the board of education. [...]

[...] Here is a link to a letter from the school chief to the school board. [...]

Ron F.

June 5th, 2012
5:39 pm

skipper: but we’ve all been told that charter schools are the way to the “Promised Land” of parent choice, competition, and real accountablility- free from government red tape and confusion… yeah, how’s that working out for FSAMS?

Former FSA teachers

June 6th, 2012
12:51 am

The school is ran by turks and that is who is on the board so they are all in on it…

Good Reporting Procedures?

June 6th, 2012
10:05 am

I’d like to know why in the “audit” it says this is not intended for the public, yet the “audit” was given to the media before the school was even given a copy of it and given a chance to respond to it. There are numerous inaccuracies in it (and the school’s website has documents that refute some of the issues raised).

In regards to the field trips, it is alleged that numerous people didn’t pay for the trip. Completely inaccurate. The issue was that many people paid their own airfare (not the school), because they weren’t going as chaperones, they were participants. Why would they need criminal background checks if they are not chaperones? As far as where they stayed, ate, etc., it was most likely by generous hosts who were either related to or friends of the people organizing the trip. Where is the crime in that – they saved people money, right?

The last page is utterly ridiculous to say the least and horrible reporting by so-called “auditors”. They list vendor relationships as the title of the page, yet numerous entities on there are not at all vendors of the school in question. Sure, there may be relationships between them – for example, certain employees have moved on to other schools, but that doesn’t make them a vendor of the school. How is the Fountain Magazine a vendor? Because the principal of the school wrote an article for that magazine they are now a vendor of the school? There is no financial connection there at all (maybe he bought a magazine so he could read his own article, but who knows).

The entire purpose of the FCSS “audit” is reveraled on this page, and their reason for closing the school is clearly revealed – they assume a relationship between the school and Gulen (reference the 60 minutes show that aired a few weeks ago). Gulen is listed as having a tie to the Fountain Magazine. No where in this “audit” does it state the relationship between the “vendors”, and thus it makes a very speculative connection between the school and Gulen at best. Are the Turkish people running it Gulenists? I’m not in a position to conclude that, but you certainly can’t say the school itself is a Gulenist school based on that diagram – it is horrible logic. Anyone who has attended or worked at the school can tell you that there is no Muslim influence there. No attempt to convert anyone to Islam at all. Trust me when I say that such influence and parents would have pulled their child out immediately – considering the fact that they had 500+ students, and even more on a waiting list to get in (this being when they were a free education), should indicate this.

I’d also like to point out that the audit mentions nothing about any money being diverted anywhere, and says nothing about the bond money that Mr. Erste claims is unaccounted for. The fact is that it is accounted for, and the reason it was mentioned in the first place without any actual investigation into it was because the purpose of saying it was to sway public opinion against the school. It was a smear campaign from the beginning. Why do you think the media was given the information before the school (or at all)?

The school had an outside audit done as well – a group without an agenda – and they didn’t find anything either. The only issues are with the “lack of cooperation” they felt they got from the school. It should be noted, however, that with only 1 accountant for the 3 connected schools, it would be a little difficult for him to perform his duties at the other schools AND cooperate with an ongoing audit – they do take a lot of time. The school gave them all information they requested, just not fast enough apparently. The issue was the purpose of the audit – the County was attempting to infere with the school’s ability to get a State Charter (which they did – the State Board didn’t even read any reports the school gave them as is evidenced by comments made in the meetings open to the public).

My overall point though is that the reporting in and of itself is not good reporting. Who reports on just one side of a story without interviewing the other side? Sure, the news station claims they waited for 3 hours to talk to someone, but how was the school supposed to comment on an audit document it never received? Why was it so important that the story go out without giving the school a chance to review the documents first and respond appropriately to the erros contained within it? It seems to me the media have their own agenda as well. I don’t know much about the law, but it seems to me a lawsuit could be coming towards FCSS and/or the media for slander/libel. For FCSS, they need to watch out for a discrimination lawsuit too – documents on the school’s website indicate that FCSS stuck it’s foot in it’s mouth when it made specific comments about how they felt Turkish shouldn’t be taught in the school and how the school’s Governing Board needed more ethnic diversity (not sure if that’s the exact wording or not). To the comment above, less than half of the current board of the school are Turkish “founding members” – more are parents than founding members and has been for a number of years now. The “conspiracy” is on the part of the FCSS to “ethnically clense” their system of Turkish-run schools. Right or wrong, it is the students who were forced into poorer performing schools that lose out. It’s the parent’s right to choose that has been lost.

Good Reporting Procedures?

June 6th, 2012
10:07 am

typo in 4th paragraph – revealed not reveraled.

Good Reporting Procedures?

June 6th, 2012
10:08 am

And nowhere, not no where – I need to slow down my typing a bit…

FSA Applicant

June 6th, 2012
10:12 am

If fault is handed to the parent board, the auditors should also look at the application of students. With admission preference going to students with younger brothers and sisters, you would not believe the number of children with numerous siblings. In my Fulton County neighborhood, most families have 1 or 2 children, some with 3 – statistically nearing the US average. However, if you were to look at the applicants, there are numerous siblings in each family. I’m not saying this is incorrect; it is just a significant statistical anomaly that should be explored.

To FSA Applicant

June 6th, 2012
10:26 am

So your beef is with people having too many children? I’m not sure I understand the concern here. Allowing siblings to bypass the lottery means convenience for those parents who have multiple children – so they don’t have to cart them off to different schools. FSA did have lots of multiples last year – a set of triplets and maybe 6-7 twins (by the way, most were caucasian). Same for siblings too, about 50. Besides, when they register they do provide proof of who the children are, how is there a scam there?

Maureen Downey

June 6th, 2012
10:53 am

@Good, I am not sure why you think an audit paid for by taxpayers of a taxpayer-funded institution is not a public document. There is no question of withholding such a document. It is a public document and all are entitled to see it.
That said, I am not sure how anyone can read that document and not have concerns, especially about the Grace Institute, which received hundreds of thousands of tax dollars for services that it did not appear — by its own submitted list of employees — capable of providing. There is also the problem of having school leaders serving on the institute.
As for whether any of the findings present criminal implications — as there are laws against self-dealing in government contracting — that will have to be decided by the Fulton DA.
Maureen

To Maureen

June 6th, 2012
11:13 am

My point wasn’t so much that the public didn’t have a right to see it, it was the manner in which they received it and you reported on it. FCSS told the school it would be given 15 days to respond to it first, yet they provide it to the media before giving it to the school? The purpose was clear, to give the public a negative impression of the school before the school could answer any of the indictments in it, many of which can be explained (and I believe will be soon). I would hope that as a reporter, your concern would be more about getting the truth than getting “a story” to report, but it appears that is not the case.

In regards to the GRACE Institute comment, the audit made very subjective statements in saying it (or any of the other vendors with an alleged conflict of interest) could not adequately provide the services. Where is your proof it wasn’t provided let alone adequately? Your reporting sounds more like a tabloid than an actual report because apparently no investigation was actually done on your part – if there had been, you’d know that they did provide the technical support (i.e. the FAS Connect that handles student information, gradebooks, etc.) as well as the staff support to the Math, Science, and Turkish teachers. The curriculum at the school was different than at FCS (it is part of the charter), obviously the training needed to be provided to the staff about those curriculums and support given. Those connected with GRACE were former teachers who actually know and have practiced the curriculum – doesn’t it make sense to outsource it to them? They also provided benchmarks for the students because FCSS decided it didn’t have to provide them to ALL schools in the County – another example of the County’s overall attitude towards charter schools.

Also not stated in the audit is the fact that the school personnel on the Board at GRACE were NOT paid by GRACE (and yes, I looked up the tax forms that prove it), they were there to consult on what the needs of the schools being represented were. Was there a conflict of interest? Just because you know a roofer doesn’t mean it is a conflict of interest to go with his company to fix your roof. If you’ve done the research, trust they’ll do a good job for a cheap price, then common sense says you go with them.

Prof

June 6th, 2012
11:59 am

Very very interesting subject revealed here, with many ramifications beyond the charter school movement. It appears that you have several FSA employees posting on your 3 blogs devoted to this subject, for the same posts re-appear, such as the one here by ” Good Reporting Procedures?,” June 6th, 10:05 am. Curious, self-serving logic in all of them, plus, as another poster noted, poor grammar and spelling typical of non-native speakers.

To Prof

June 6th, 2012
1:11 pm

Typical response from a person who has no real knowledge of the situation – only what is fed to them by the media or xenophobic conspiracy theorists bashing a school they know nothing about. Not that it matters, but I was born and raised in this country – San Diego to be precise. Parents and grandparents all born and raised here too. Just because someone types too fast and doesn’t check their spelling (until after they’ve posted) doesn’t mean they are from a foreign country. Not very logical thinking coming from a “Prof”. As far as self-serving comments go, I speak based on the facts of the situation – facts the media curiously enough has failed to report on.

Prof

June 6th, 2012
1:30 pm

Self-serving, illogical, and diversionary. So far, the obviously FSA posters on these 3 blog-threads have refused to explain any of the points raised: the numbers of non-native teachers used for elementary grades when local native elementary teachers have been laid off for years; the conflicts of interest in the contracts where people associated with the school get the contracts with higher than average bids; the points that Maureen raises above. AND ALL BEING PAID WITH TAX DOLLARS! That is what is being siphoned off to Turkey, probably the real motivation behind the Gulen Schools.

And it is the poor grammar used in these posts, not misspellings or typos, that reveal a non-native speaker is composing them.

To Prof

June 6th, 2012
3:49 pm

Alright “grammar police”, I know your game is to try to discredit me by making people think I am just another Turkish person on here and “who can believe those Turks anyway” – I’ve seen that hateful rhetoric on AJC posts before. Besides, I haven’t written all the posts on here, so you’re probably referring to a post I didn’t write anyway, because my grammar is just fine. The Turkish teachers are the best qualified and the test results prove it – any amount of research on the FCS website would show we’re higher than anyone else on ITBS scores and I think I heard we were even 4th in the State. I could argue all your points, but I think it’s probably better to let the statement response by the board members speak to everything. I encourage everyone to look at the FULL story and not believe the one-sided report this audit obviously was.

seminole

June 6th, 2012
5:34 pm

Easy to have high test scores when looking at the school’s demographics. Oh, and how about the lack of special education students? I know first-hand that at the elementary sister school, students with IEPs already in place (i.e., students already identified as having a disability) are not accepted – the students that do receive services in special education were already enrolled prior to a disability being discovered.

Not too hard to do well on test scores when the playing field is uneven (compared to traditional schools who must accept every child, regardless of ability).

Prof

June 6th, 2012
5:54 pm

@ To Prof. My point was that those posts with non-native grammar clearly are composed by FSA employees, most of whom evidently are Turkish, and written out of self-interest. You still have not answered the audit’s points with facts, only name-calling.

MB

June 6th, 2012
8:46 pm

Exactly, Seminole… comparing a peck of apples carefully selected from the tree with a peck of whatever apples fell to the ground doesn’t seem equitable, does it? I agree with posters who say charters should have to take a representative sample of the population in the area they serve if they want to assess relative “results.”

TC

June 7th, 2012
9:18 am

Since I’ve been using the name to direct the comments to individuals and that has been confusing some of you, I’ll use my initials from now on.

To Seminole & MB

Lack of Special Ed students? The middle school had about 50 last year or 10% of it’s population, and all of the ones in 7th grade passed the CRCTs (100% of all 7th graders passed ALL 5 subjects), and yes there were a number of 7th grade SpEd students in that group. The fact is that as a public school you cannot tell someone that they can’t attend there because of a disability, and FSA has not done that. Charter schools ARE public schools and cannot “hand-pick” who comes here, there is a lottery process and it is performed in an open public meeting for the sake of transparency. Our population mix isn’t much different than any other school we compare ourselves to in N. Fulton, and we have students who attend who struggle just like any other school. I cannot completely speak to SpEd eligibility, but I can say that each case is handled individually. Recently, the ES (and she worked with the MS & HS too) hired a SpEd Coordinator who worked for Fulton County, so I know she knows what she is doing and has done a great job with the program.

TC

June 7th, 2012
9:57 am

To Prof

I have answered some of the audit’s points with facts per my extremely long post at 10:05 yesterday morning. Did I answer ALL the questions, no I did not, but I am also not a Giverning Board member, so I don’t have all the answers (just the few I’ve overheard being discussed or know from first-hand knowledge). I’ve been told that a well-prepared statement will address all of the concerns raised in the near future. I apologize if “grammar police” offended you, but you were making baseless accusations against me based on grammar alone, and I felt the title fit your actions.

Appreciative FSA Parent

June 7th, 2012
11:07 am

Oh my goodness, I am surprised how open FSA detractors are with their xenophobia and ethnic/religious/social prejudices. “poor grammar and spelling typical of non-native speakers.” So is someone’s opinion only valid if they are native English speakers? Would you dare speak of recently immigrated Hispanic parents with the same distain if they dared to voice an opinion?
There are many more Indian and East Asian families at the FSA schools than the “Turks” who are apparently so acceptable to besmirch. Many of these parents are highly educated scientists, doctors and business leaders, who happen to be new to the country and want the best education for their children, as do I. We all found that at FSA.

I have three kids in the FSA schools (that’s NOT a statistical anomoly” in our neighborhood, church or sports programs, btw). I have one who receives SpecEd services, and have been extremely happy with his progress. He went from an ok student at his zoned school to principal’s honor role (in a rigorous academic program) in the two years he was at Fulton Sunshine. He also flourished emotionally, as he was free from the bullying culture that was rampant from students AND teachers at our zoned government school. He and I had looked forward to the continuation of that success at FSA MS, but we will have to make do with the government school.

Finally, I am shocked by the open discrimination against the Turkish members of the FSA community. How can it be ok to call out someone’s personal religious beliefs as an issue in the workplace? I am sure that none of us “natives” would tolerate someone judging us at work based on our religious convictions, what religious leaders’ works we read or or with whom we associate. Starting with the “Turks” is a very slippery slope. In our years at FSA, we have NEVER seen the religious preferences of any staff member – Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Buddhist – impact the students. You will have to find another red herring.

Stick to the facts, please. If there are legitimate issues raised in the “audit,” then at least be willing to let the other side present their evidence before coming to judgment.

Appreciative FSA Parent

June 7th, 2012
11:54 am

@seminole:
“I know first-hand that at the elementary sister school, students with IEPs already in place
(i.e., students already identified as having a disability) are not accepted – the students that
do receive services in special education were already enrolled prior to a disability being
discovered.”
Your statement is completely untrue. My own son came to Fulton Sunshine with an IEP, as did a number of his classmates. As a charter school, FSA accepts all students who win a space in the open lottery, and serve their individual educational needs just as a zoned school would. We have been completely satisfied with the SpecEd services he has received there, and he has flourished.

But of course, it’s FSA we’re talking about, so why let the facts get in the way of a good story? ;-)

First year,last year

June 7th, 2012
5:16 pm

That’s it. I can’t take any more of this. I’ve read it ALL and been to the meetings and after 1 year at the elementary I am done. My kids won’t go back in the fall. I’m going to have their records transferred tomorrow.

Clearly the other schools will have difficulty staying open. I can’t believe they have done nothing to communicate with the sister school parents on this issue. What a debacle.

Appreciative FSA Parent

June 7th, 2012
5:53 pm

@First year,last year: “I can’t believe they have done nothing to communicate with the sister school parents on this issue.”
Perhaps you should check with the school to see if they have your email address, although presumably they have had it all year long? I have received TWO copies of every email FSA has sent on the issue, one from the middle school principal and one from the elementary school principal. (I have kids at both.) They have always communicated promptly everything that has happened all year, and have even immediately responded to my personal emails with follow-up questions.

So many of the comments on these blogs have been very inaccurate on topics from school communications to audit comments to special education. It has been sad to witness the slandering of many fine FSA employees (Turkish and non-Turkish alike) who work hard for less money than their zone school counterparts. I have appreciated their service, and the wonderful educational environments they have provided for my children.

Joseph O'Reilly

June 8th, 2012
2:41 am

When there is an audit give a chance to respond before giving to media! Now media is equally responsible for violating privacy laws.

I am just curious who will be sued first ,IAG Forensics Fulton County School Board or Dr. Avossa for violating laws?

Hugo Sanchez

June 8th, 2012
5:15 pm

Fulton Science Academy 3.3 million dollar budget
BASIC MATH 101
Fulton County School’s FY13 Budget ===== 1.1 billion for 90,000 student
Fulton Science Academy FY12 Budget ===== 3.3 million for 500 student
Fulton County Schools Spend $12,000 per student annnd they have millons dollar DEPT
Fulton Science Academy Spend $6,600 per student annnd they ARE GOING TO SAVE $100,000 . If the Fulton County didn’t deny FSAMS WOULD HAVE $850,000.
soooooo i am asking you
to whom should need audit ??????

Hugo Sanchez

June 8th, 2012
6:11 pm

Fulton County Schools FY13 PROJECTED BUDGET!
here is the link
http://portal.fultonschools.org/departments/Financial_Services/Budget_Services/Documents/FY2013%20Budget%20Book.pdf

PLEASE READ CARREFULLY page 140;
Superintends budget was increased from $479,456 to $899,767. it means Dr. Avossa is going to spend 46.71% more than this year.
The Board members were increased their portion from $220,669 to $241,299 . it is 5.55%
guess from where are they going to get their portion?

please loook at the page 144;
THE CHARTER SCHOOL’S PORTION WERE DECREASED FROM $28,730,248 TO $24,809,812. IT MEANS ‐15.80%. FOUR MILLON DOLLAR AND PLUS FSAMS MONEY 3 MILLON DOLAR
AHAA. HERE IS THE REAL PURPOSE OF THIS DIRTY THINGS!!!!

ARE THEY CHARTER FRIENDLY COUNTY????

first year,last year

June 13th, 2012
10:01 am

@Appreciative FSA parent: Oh yes, they have my email. I have received all the emails during the year and I got the emails up until the charter was denied and there has been NO communication since then. After the last middle school parent meeting when I was told by a board member that it would be July before we knew if the elementary would remain open (he said it depended on what is worked out with the investors), I emailed Mr. Cetin directly regarding my hesitation to continue at Sunshine next year and got no response. When I walked into the school last week to ask that my son’s records be sent to our old elementary school, I brought up my concern that Sunshine might not remain open. I included the fact that I had emailed Mr. Cetin and received no response. What I got was a blank stare from the person handling this. Not even a verbal response. There is nothing on Sunshine’s website about this: just the announcement that they have graduated their 5th graders. I’m talking to other parents as well who have heard nothing. And I have friends who are starting new there in the fall and they know nothing about this whole debacle.

Maybe they have left me out of the loop because my daughter is Special Needs. After my last IEP meeting, I was told off the record that “now that the recorder is turned off, I can share with you that this school does not do special needs”. Seriously, I’m kidding – I’m not that paranoid – and they are not organized enough to leave me off the emails for that reason.

So, my older daughter is going off to a private school that can handle her giftedness and her social awkwardness along with the bullying she attracts from other students (which this school did not), and my son is going back to a sub-par elementary. Which I consider better than supporting this organization. When I started at the school, I dismissed all of the blogs that denigrated the schools as crazy, tea-party, anti-muslim, xenophobic ranting. I was happy to have my kids in a multi-cultural school that actually enforced discipline and good behavior. But now I have made a 180 and I think it’s a highly corrupt organization. I’ll take the run of the mill American corruption over this.