ST. PAUL -- Another charter school's finances came under attack Wednesday after documents surfaced showing its board used public money for cars, a $158,000 condominium and a Greece trip involving a single student.
Rep. Matt Entenza, a former white-collar crime prosecutor, said the situation at Strategies for Success is "almost comedy" and possibly criminal. He asked a county prosecutor to investigate and renewed a call for added oversight of schools purposely given broad freedom in spending and teaching decisions.
The situation is another black eye for the charter-school movement.
Two St. Paul schools closed last year amid financial problems. In February, Entenza released a report detailing lax accounting standards and loose financial controls in several charter schools. He followed it up in March with criminal allegations against the founders of the PEAKS Charter Schools chain, also over possible misuse of public money.
Education Commissioner Christine Jax on Monday informed one PEAKS school, in Pillager, that she has started a process toward stripping its charter. The school has 60 days to appeal, but must request a hearing within two weeks if it wants one.
St. Paul Superintendent Patricia Harvey, whose district sponsors the Strategies for Success school, must make a recommendation to the district board this month on whether to retain, revoke or modify the charter. She called the preliminary findings of a district audit "troubling."
"If these assertions are true, they are devastating ones," Harvey said, declining to reveal her intentions. Revocation of the charter effectively would close the school, which opened in 1999 and now serves 180 students at two sites.
The perks were identified plainly in meeting minutes for the charter board. The three-member board includes the two directors that benefited from housing or auto allowances, or both.
Brian Thilman, one director, said he is willing to return any questionable expenditures and take any steps necessary to keep the school open. He said he accepted $600 in auto allowance.
"There are problems. There are serious problems, I'm not denying that," Thilman said. "I don't believe there was criminal wrongdoing at this time -- at least not with the intent of being criminal."
Felicia Young, the director living in the condominium, could not be reached.
Leaders of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools worked to control damage to the movement's reputation. They delivered apples Wednesday to all 201 legislators with stickers attached asking them to support bills to create a state charter school board, give it oversight powers and triple the $10 per student fee charters pay to sponsors to monitor and evaluate them.
Beforehand, at a news conference immediately after Entenza's, they expressed frustration that the accomplishments of many among the 63 active schools are being overshadowed by "bad apples."
"The fact that we have a few schools tarnishing the looks of charters across the state is very upsetting to the majority of us," said Dee Thomas, director of Minnesota New Country School in Henderson and the association's co-president.
Steve Dess, the group's executive director, was the target of criticism himself.
Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, claimed that Dess knew about problems at Strategies for Success, tried to keep documents from him and didn't let lawmakers know about them at a hearing on Entenza's bill to require tighter controls than the association supports.
Dess said he didn't receive documents confirming the suspicions until Friday afternoon, a day after a House committee defeated the Entenza bill. "There's no cover-up here," he said.
In fact, Dess said, he worked all weekend to cancel the Greece trip -- which was to involve a school director and one student being rewarded for her performance. He further asked St. Paul School District officials in a letter Monday to suspend the charter and let a new board take over.
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