A board member of the Fulton Science Academy Middle School came to the school’s defense today after a critical audit released Tuesday by the school district.
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.
“Nobody has met this Gulen dude,” 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.”
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.
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.
Here is the response from the Fulton Science Academy Middle School to the audit released Tuesday by the Fulton Schools:
The Fulton Science Academy received the report of the consultant for the Fulton County School System for the first time yesterday. It is important to note at the outset that this report is not an audit under Generally Accepted Auditing Principles (GAAP), and as noted in the report, it does not express any opinions on FSA’s compliance with relevant laws, rules, guidelines or guidance.
Even with these significant limitations, the public should know that the report contains multiple inaccuracies, and in part, concerns operational matters that FSA and the School System have previously addressed to the satisfaction of the School System. We intend to provide a more formal response to the School System on the major issues in the near future. We are particularly disappointed that the School System did not provide FSA an opportunity to review or comment on the report before publicly releasing it.
If it had done so, as set forth in its own audit procedures, we believe that many, if not most, of the points outlined in the report would not have been an issue at all. For now, the public should be aware that FSA has been audited nine times over the past 10 years by independent auditing firms. Each of those audits, which are publicly available, reflects that the financial statements of the school were fairly stated in all material respects.
As a Fulton County charter school for 10 years, FSA and its students have achieved tremendous results. FSA is the only National Blue Ribbon Charter School in Georgia. There has never been a finding of impropriety by FSA in all the years of its operation.
Needless to say, FSA is distressed by the School System’s consultant’s incomplete and inaccurate report. We do intend to provide a more formal response to the School System, after we have had a chance to review and analyze the report in more detail.
Finally, we ask that the media respect the privacy of the individual students and parents that are identified in the report, as their identities should never have been disclosed to the public.
In the meantime, we continue to work cooperatively with the School System in winding up the affairs of the school.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog