Jola Community Charter School

"When charters close, public schools foot the bill."  Voice of San Diego (CA), 12/4/2007 
Spending scandals brought down Children's Conservation Academy, a City Heights charter school shuttered in 2007, only two years after it opened. A year earlier, A. Phillip Randolph Leadership Academy dissolved, with questions swirling around its finances. Its closure echoed that of Jola Community Charter School, a girls' charter that sunk two months after opening in 2005.

These schools and two other closed charters owe more than $300,000 to San Diego Unified School District in unpaid fees and property taxes. None have repaid the district. School staff doubts they ever will…

But while charters can be snuffed, ending experiments gone wrong, the closures aren't painless. In San Diego, shuttered charters still owe thousands to the school district and the state in unpaid fees. Public schools rarely recover those funds unless a charter director is prosecuted for a crime, such as fraud, and forced to repay the district. Ordinary debts go unpaid...

"Nobody's monitoring charter schools that closely," said Andrea Niehaus, the district's director of audits and investigations. She recently asked to hire another auditor for her seven-person office, to specialize in charter schools. "They don't keep the same documents. We can't even see how they're taking attendance — and that's how schools are funded. We have no way of knowing."

"It's very disturbing," Niehaus said. "I don't see anyone doing any real oversight."...

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With one phone call to Ohio's state auditor – or simply a Google search – the San Diego Unified School District could have learned that Donna Johnson, seeking a charter for the Jola Community School in Mount Hope, had just left a long record of financial chaos in her operation of the Imani Institute Leadership School, her previous charter school in Cleveland.

So chaotic a record for so long, in fact, that Ohio's state auditor, already skeptical of Johnson, was conducting a special audit. So chaotic for so long that even minimal due diligence should have kept San Diego officials from dismissing questions about Johnson's performance in Cleveland as irrelevant to San Diego.

Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery has now issued the special audit. It finds public money meant for Imani was spent for pricey women's apparel and Luther Vandross concert tickets. It finds that throughout Imani's operation Johnson ignored generally accepted accounting principles and Ohio financial reporting requirements. It finds that Johnson owes Ohio $341,156, and cannot account for $482,159 in federal grant money.

Now Johnson owes the San Diego district $162,516 in funding for Jola, which folded in fall 2005 after two months' operation for lack of students, facilities and money. It has yet to close its financial books to the district's satisfaction.

This should have come as no surprise, if it had to come at all. Our two-minute call to State Auditor Montgomery and a one-minute search of her Web site turned up an audit report posted in November 2003 noting that the financial statements Johnson provided for Imani “omit all disclosures required by generally accepted accounting principles” and listing eight “material weaknesses” in Imani's accounting.

Either the San Diego district's vetting process is wholly inadequate or the district staff is far too gullible. Whichever, it needs fixing, now.

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