Outtakes – In Plain Sight
Escambia School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas and his administration once again have turned a blind eye to providing oversight of a charter school while precious dollars were siphoned out of the classroom.
In 2015, we broke the news of financial and management issues at two charter schools run by Newpoint Education Partners. The story led to a State Attorney investigation that uncovered how NEP founder Marcus May had stolen over $5.2 million from charter schools in Escambia, Bay, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
May and co-defendant Steven Kunkemoeller reportedly used shell companies to sell Newpoint school’s furniture, supplies and technology for as much as triple the market rate and kept most of the proceeds.
Assistant State Attorney Russell Edgar told jurors, “It was self-dealing, and he did it over and over and over again.”
May was found guilty of racketeering and fraud. At his sentencing, Judge Tom Dannheisser said the crime could have been avoided if the Escambia County School District had dedicated the effort “upfront to provide basic rudimentary checks and balances.”
“There was evidence that the local school district, after even experiencing a previous massive financial fraud with the charter school, continued to grant millions of dollars in public funds to charter schools with next to no oversight,” said Judge Dannheisser.
This week, we report on how the founder of Jacqueline Harris Preparatory Academy, Celestine Lewis, has profited by taking a gift of the McReynolds school property and putting it in her for-profit company instead of letting the school’s nonprofit corporation buy the property.
The result of the switcheroo was taxpayers paid her and Durga Das Trust, which later bought the site from her, over $2.3 million to rent the facility and get out of a lease. Had the deal been done as the school board intended, the charter school should have owned the school for $654,043 after it paid off the mortgage. It’s little wonder the school has struggled financially.
The sad thing is the district knew about the switcheroo. Auditors pointed it out in 2004 and in every audited financial statement since then. In 2009, the district had the school sign a new charter agreement that had a conflict of interest clause that clearly stated the school couldn’t do business with its employees and board members. That should have forced a correction of the problem.
Instead, Superintendent Thomas never enforced the clause. When we asked district officials about the Jacqueline Harris Preparatory Academy, they found little out of place. No one had complained about the conflict, so they weren’t concerned.
Millions were siphoned out the classrooms at Newpoint and Jacqueline Harris Preparatory Academy in plain sight. Why did no one at the school district care?