Probe Of Charter School Group Blasts 'Suspect' Conduct, 'Rampant Nepotism'
By Matthew Kauffman, Vanessa de la Torre and Jon Lender , HartfordCourant | http://cour.at/1wNOfJA
The Jumoke Academy-owned Queen Anne building at 852 Asylum Avenue in Hartford. Former Jumoke leader Michael M. Sharpe lived in an apartment on the second floor. (MARK MIRKO | firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jan 2, 2015 :: HARTFORD — The Jumoke Academy charter school operation was saddled with "rampant nepotism," imposed little or no oversight on former CEO Michael Sharpe and made repeated financial missteps that could sink the organization within three years, according to a 99-page investigative report ordered by the state Department of Education.
The report, released Friday afternoon and coming in the midst of an FBI investigation of Jumoke and the closely related Family Urban Schools of Excellence, mirrors reporting by The Courant since June. The state report was especially critical of Sharpe, who hired multiple family members, gave work to the relatives of Jumoke executives, approved the hiring of felons for school jobs and oversaw "expensive and ornate modifications" to a Jumoke-owned apartment that he later rented. Sharpe resigned on June 21.
"There were virtually no checks and balances in place to control Mr. Sharpe's actions at Jumoke," the report's author, Hartford attorney Frederick L. Dorsey, wrote. "Michael Sharpe basically had unfettered control of Jumoke from the time he was appointed CEO in 2003, and even after he had transitioned in July 2012 from CEO of Jumoke to CEO of FUSE."
Sharpe, one of the state's most prominent charter school leaders until his undoing this summer, was not immediately available for comment.
Dorsey wrote that educators in Jumoke's three Hartford schools were passionate — even tearful — in their support for Jumoke's mission. But he said that negative publicity from the misdeeds of its past leadership, coupled with potentially crippling loans from questionable real estate deals, could put the organization's viability in jeopardy by the 2017-2018 year.
Outgoing state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, long a champion of charter schools, ordered an investigation of Jumoke and FUSE in late June, following revelations in The Courant that Sharpe was a convicted felon and had claimed for years to have a doctorate in education.
"The mismanagement and poor judgment detailed in this report are extremely disappointing and must be remedied," Pryor said Friday. "While some corrective steps have been taken, it is clear that more work remains to be done. Going forward, to protect the interests of the school's students, parents, and teachers, Jumoke Academy must demonstrate to the state that it can take the steps needed to restore our trust and ensure the school's continued viability."
James Michel, chairman of Jumoke's board of directors, acknowledged Friday afternoon that "the board should have been more engaged, more active and provided oversight over what Michael Sharpe was doing."
The report "confirmed a lot of the concerns we had as a board," Michel said. As one way of making things right, he said, the board has been reviewing Jumoke's real estate and intends to sell properties that are not being used for educational purposes.
"The goal is to get rid of those properties as efficiently as possible, with no debt on the books," Michel said.
Dorsey interviewed more than 20 current and former Jumoke and FUSE employees, some of whom weren't sure for which organization they worked. In the report, Dorsey said that FUSE, founded by Sharpe in 2012 as a separate charter management group, "became synonymous with Jumoke" — with Sharpe in control of both. Dorsey criticized the intermingling of employees and finances.
"It would be difficult to construct a less appropriate financial arrangement between two supposedly separate organizations," Dorsey wrote. He added that FUSE's board of directors did not hold its first meeting until June 2014, after the initial news reports about Sharpe's past.
Among the nepotism cited in the report are the hiring of Sharpe's daughter and the "special treatment" given to Sharpe's sister, Ethel Dickerson, who was a contracted social worker who made $50 an hour for some services and $100 an hour for others — higher than the roughly $43 hourly rate given to salaried social workers at the charter school.
Dorsey also asserted that Michele Sharpe, the daughter of Michael Sharpe, would probably not have been hired as Jumoke's high school transition coordinator in 2013 if not for "her father's influence." After college, Michele Sharpe's first job at Jumoke was as an academic assistant, a position "for which she had no prior training," the report stated. She later became an office assistant and left Jumoke this summer.
As "further evidence of the rampant nepotism that existed in the Jumoke/FUSE operations," Dorsey wrote that Sharpe's nephew, Joseph Dickerson III, was given authority over a sensitive financial arrangement even though Dickerson, a trainee "with no noted financial expertise, was not qualified." Dorsey added that Dickerson, as Sharpe's nephew, "was not a disinterested party to oversee his uncle's actions."
The report also delved into Michael Sharpe's own hiring at Jumoke as a paraprofessional in 1999. His mother, Jumoke Academy founder Thelma Ellis Dickerson, employed Sharpe a decade after he had pleaded guilty in a federal corruption case to charges that he had embezzled more than $100,000 and conspired to defraud a California public transit agency, where he had been a real estate manager. Sharpe also pleaded no contest at the time to income tax evasion.
Sharpe's application to Jumoke noted that he had been convicted of "Title 18 violations/taxes," but did not get into specifics, according to the report.
Sharpe rose from paraprofessional to Jumoke's CEO in four years. Personnel files indicate that Sharpe claimed to the charter school's CEO search committee in 2003 that he had a doctorate from New York University. The Courant reported in June that Sharpe never received the degree and had falsely claimed the title of "Dr."
The report also noted that at Bridgeport's Dunbar School, which FUSE was contracted to manage under a state program to improve struggling schools, Sharpe approved the hiring of two academic assistants with felony convictions. Dorsey said those hires were "solely at the discretion of Mr. Sharpe, who claimed to make his decisions based on how he felt the individuals had rehabilitated themselves and developed ties in the community."
Real Estate, Rent Payments
Dorsey criticized Jumoke's "aggressive" real estate expansion over the past decade, saying that the organization bought a Scarborough Street property knowing that it was not zoned for a school and paid at least $195,000 above market value for its most expensive purchase — a $3.1 million deal in fall 2013 to buy 875 Asylum Ave., now the home of Jumoke Academy Honors at the Hartford Conservatory.
All of Jumoke's properties are either mortgaged or collateral for other properties, the report stated, and the organization faces ballooning payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in fall 2017.
Dorsey confirmed The Courant's reporting about one of those buildings, a Victorian mansion at 852 Asylum renovated partly with state funds, including the creation of a second-floor apartment. Sharpe, who oversaw the renovations, later occupied the space but failed to pay rent for months at a time.
"[E]xpensive and ornate modifications were made, at Jumoke's expense, to the bathroom and shower facility located in what was to become Mr. Sharpe's bedroom, performed by a contractor that was the husband of the Jumoke Facilities Manager," Dorsey wrote.
In addition, Dorsey criticized what he described as Sharpe's unauthorized sublease of an apartment one floor above his to a woman from whom "he personally collected rent payments." The Courant reported on the sublease in November.
Sharpe's one-page signed lease specified that he would occupy the second floor starting in February 2013. But after moving out in July, Sharpe wrote a letter to Jumoke officials in which he contended that it was "clear to all parties" that he also had lawful control of the third-floor apartment. A lawyer for Jumoke, Christine Chinni, has said that claim is fanciful and "manufactured" by Sharpe.
Dorsey called the apartment situation "clearly suspect" and noted that Jumoke is still owed rent money.
"To date, the discrepancy in the rental payments made by Mr. Sharpe have not been reconciled, and no attempt has been made by Jumoke to obtain a return of the rental payments Mr. Sharpe collected from the third party lessee," Dorsey wrote.
Pryor, who had placed Jumoke on probation in July, continued that probation indefinitely Friday and imposed additional conditions on the organization, including the appointment of a state-selected member of Jumoke's board of directors, to be chosen by Pryor's successor, and requirements that Jumoke submit proposed budgets through 2019 and develop a plan for its various properties.
Pryor is also calling on his own agency to review its "internal procedures related to the oversight of school operators' use of public funds." Jumoke Academy has received more than $53 million in state funds since it was founded in 1997.
Dorsey concluded that Jumoke "has suffered significant damage to its reputation as a result of the actions of its leadership, or the lack thereof, which could threaten its continued existence."
But he also wrote that the charter school "has the potential to be a viable and continuing educational institution, if it can establish practices and leadership procedures that guarantee that the educational goals of the organization, not individual goals of administrators within the organization, guide the day-to-day operations."
In a written statement, Jumoke's current board said that the problems cited in the state report occurred under a prior set of leaders, and noted that Dorsey praised positive steps taken by Jumoke's current leadership, including the institution of an anti-nepotism policy. The board also highlighted Dorsey's conclusion that educational results at Jumoke have been good, despite the turmoil in leadership.
"The educational value of Jumoke is very strong," Michel, the board chairman, said later. "One has to recognize the commitment of our parents, teachers and students ... in light of what was going on behind the scenes."
State report details problems with FUSE management
by Linda Conner Lambeck | Connecticut Post/CTPost.com | http://bit.ly/1wNP8C6
Dr. Michael Sharpe, CEO of Jumoke Academy. Photo: Ned Gerard
Updated 10:14 pm, Friday, January 2, 2015 :: A state investigation into the charter school management company that ran Dunbar School in Bridgeport last year -- until it was learned the firm let convicted felons work there -- portrays a convoluted organization in which nepotism ran rampant and one man, Michael Sharpe, called all the shots.
A 27-page report on the probe, commissioned by the state Department of Education, was released Friday afternoon, days away from Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor's departure from office. The release also came on the day Dunbar Principal Marilyn Taylor, who was recruited by Family Urban Schools of Excellence and stayed on after the firm was fired last summer, was arraigned on charges she stole more than $10,000 from a student fundraising account.
It remained unclear Friday where an FBI probe into both Jumoke Academy Inc., of Hartford, and FUSE stands. So far, the investigation has resulted in no indictments.
Pryor was unavailable Friday to answer questions about the report. In a written statement supplied by his office, he called the mismanagement and poor judgment detailed in the report extremely disappointing.
"While some corrective steps have been taken, it is clear that more work remains to be done," Pryor stated. "Going forward, to protect the interests of the school's students, parents, and teachers, Jumoke Academy must demonstrate to the state that it can take the steps needed to restore our trust and ensure the school's continued viability."
Jumoke and FUSE came under fire late last spring when it was learned that Sharpe, at the time CEO of both entities, was a convicted felon who lied about having a doctorate. It was later learned that he hired other felons, including a registered sex offender, to work at Dunbar, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state.
FUSE was fired by Bridgeport and lost contracts to operate schools in New Haven and Louisiana, and its Jumoke charter schools in Hartford were put on probation by the state.
The state report was completed by Frederick L. Dorsey, a special investigator who interviewed more than 20 current and former FUSE/Jumoke employees. The document includes a review of operations, finances and governance. The finance part of the study is still a work in progress.
According to the findings, Jumoke and FUSE were so intermingled that employees were unsure for which company they worked.
Sharpe, according to the report, had the sole right to determine whether people with criminal records would be employed, based on "how he felt the individuals had rehabilitated themselves and developed ties in the community since their convictions."
The report makes several references to an operational audit conducted quickly over the summer by Bridgeport Public Schools, which found that FUSE hired two academic assistants with felony convictions and one with no record of a background check.
As an appendix to the Bridgeport report, a "self-guided evaluation" by Indra Sen, former program director at Dunbar and now an aide to Mayor Bill Finch, suggests FUSE "did not research backgrounds carefully enough and anticipate legal consequences" in a timely manner.
The Bridgeport review also found $46,066 in consulting fees the district thought should have been included in the $435,000 FUSE received to help Dunbar improve.
Dorsey's state report found no evidence of tampering with test results and found that teachers at Jumoke's charter schools are genuinely concerned about their students. Immediate steps the state Department of Education will take, according to a news release issued Friday, include reviews of future Jumoke budgets, policies and protocols.
The department also wants the next state commissioner of education to keep Jumoke on probation, wants a controller appointed to oversee its operations and a state-selected member placed on the Jumoke Board of Directors.