What does it take to get an elected official’s attention about investigating potential wrongdoing and conflicts-of-interest in the Ohio charter school industry? If it’s Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, it might take an earthquake or a coup in a foreign country to wake him up from his self-induced coma and avoidance of responsibility in protecting public funds.
On October 11, the policy group, Progress Ohio, hosted a press conference which featured Robert Amsterdam, a Washington-based attorney who discussed a complaint sent to Yost that was based on an investigation of Concept Schools, a charter management organization that operates 17 publicly funded schools in Ohio under the Horizon Science and Noble Academy brands.
Amsterdam, who was hired by the Turkish government to investigate the Gulen Movement and its ties to American charter schools, spent months examining available documents to provide the basis of the complaint, now in possession of the Ohio Auditor. Recall that Fethullah Gulen, the spiritual leader of the movement that bears his name and is the inspiration for 150 charter schools that operate in the United States, has been accused of being involved in the July coup that sought to bring down the government of Turkey.
Gulen and his organization have denied any involvement in the coup. According to some reports, more than 265 people were killed in the attempt to overthrow the government led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The lingering question at this point, an issue implied by many observers critical of the worldwide Gulen Movement, is whether or not some of the profits from publicly funded charter schools in this country might have been siphoned off to promote revolutionary activity in another country. That area was not developed in the complaint filed by Amsterdam to the State Auditor’s Office, but nevertheless remains a concern among charter school watchdogs.
In the complaint prepared by the Amsterdam firm and delivered to Auditor Yost, the following points are raised as avenues for investigation by Ohio public officials:
“… it is clear that the Concept-operated charter schools do not have meaningful independence from their management company and exist primarily to finance its expansion throughout the Midwest. This is accomplished through:
• Filling charter school board seats with individuals with the same cultural affiliations and national origin as Concept’s leadership;
• Creating a closed loop of decision-making with the same people serving on both ends of transactions so that there are no checks and balances on key decisions;
• Foisting untenable and financially irresponsible leasing arrangements onto the charter schools agreed to by the crony charter governing boards that result in excessive rents;
• Systematically redistributing funding between schools across county and municipal tax boundaries to forestall the resulting insolvencies; and
• Using the profits from the excessive rental payments to acquire new properties to house new Concept-operated charter schools, with the cycle repeating as Concept’s footprint increases at the expense of its existing schools.”
Several of these same points raised in the new complaint sent to Auditor Yost were shared in testimony I provided on March 17, 2015 before the Ohio House Education Committee. Here is one section of my testimony:
“One group of schools, part of a national chain and established and operated by an organization with international ties, has a tendency to populate its schools with governing board members, almost exclusively male, who are not representative of the clientele of the schools. The New York Times reported extensively on this school management group nearly two years ago, and the management company could not confirm for the Akron Beacon Journal that all of the board members for these schools are, in fact, American citizens. In July, the Ohio Department of Education announced that they were investigating some of the practices in this 17-school chain, but as of today, we have heard nothing…”
Rep. Andrew Brenner, who became chairman of the education committee shortly after my testimony in 2015, ignored the advice given about systemic governance problems with Ohio charter schools. Brenner is the same individual who characterized public schools as “socialism” but is nevertheless comfortable with foreign nationals, non-citizens, serving on Ohio “public” charter school boards.
This passage from the Amsterdam complaint might wake up Auditor Yost and Chairman Brenner from their deep comas when it comes to the topic of Ohio charter schools:
“The governing boards of the Ohio Concept schools, like their management company (Concept), landlord entity (New Plan Learning), and preferred vendors, are dominated by a Turkish supermajority. 84% of Ohio Concept school governing board members are of Turkish descent. Furthermore, these governing board members usually serve on multiple Ohio Concept school boards. For example, there are seventeen Ohio Concept schools with a total of 85 available board positions (five per school) for board members. However, the same 38 individuals fill all 85 spots, with some board members sitting on up to four Concept school boards at once.”
In the past, Yost has been deft in implying that others in state government have proper jurisdiction in pursuing charter school wrongdoing. But there is one sentence that is directly aimed at Yost and provides little wiggle room for him to evade responsibility in initiating a thorough investigation of the charges detailed in the complaint:
“As this complaint concerns the fraudulent misuse of public funds for illegal private benefit, the Office of the Ohio State Auditor has jurisdiction to review this complaint and initiate the requested investigation.”
It is hoped that readers should be familiar with much of this narrative, Please go here and here to look at previous articles in the last year from the abundant Plunderbund archives related to the Ohio Gulen charter school controversy.
While reviewing the work of Amsterdam and the complaint delivered to Yost about questionable charter school practices and conflicts-of-interest, I was reminded about the immortal words of Yogi Berra, who observed years ago that “it’s deja vu all over again.” (Full Disclosure: Yogi and I share the same birthday, and I’ve been a fan (though not of the Yankee variety) for a long time). Here’s what reminded me of what did and did not happen this time last year.
On October 11, 2015, exactly one year before the Amsterdam and Progress Ohio presser, I wrote a letter to Ohio Auditor Dave Yost about the then-current scandal involving David Hansen, erstwhile executive director of the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. Plunderbund readers might recall that Hansen was quite adept in manipulating Ohio charter performance data and artificially inflating the performance of certain charter authorizers by leaving out the performance data of certain online and dropout recovery schools.
In the closing part of my letter, I urged Yost to
“… exert the same type of leadership and discretion that you exercised in the recent case of Columbus City Schools, where a number of people were also shown to be involved in data-rigging – thanks to your investigative tenacity.
… Since we should always lead by example, your fellow citizens are counting on you to lead by ensuring that this bad example is not sanctioned by inaction. Such seemingly criminal behavior – perpetrated by those who are and have been in leadership in the very agency which supposedly exists to ensure our society’s future through the education of our youth so they become skilled, productive and ethical citizens – cannot be ignored.
Yes, education is about the future. Our system of public education is charged with producing skilled, productive and ethical citizens. It is our hope that you lead by example to ensure that the corruption and wrongdoing at the Ohio Department of Education – the very agency that exists to ensure that our society produces ethical citizens – is addressed.
It is our further hope that your initiative and leadership in investigating this scandal will help to reassure the public that wrongdoing will be investigated and dealt with, wherever the trail of evidence might lead.”
On October 21 – ten days after my letter was sent to Yost, the Columbus Dispatch took note of what I had to say. But not Yost. Apparently, he was in a coma.
Exactly one year later, nothing has happened in this investigation of wrongdoing in the state charter school office. Nada. David Hansen has so far escaped responsibility for manipulating data, unlike those who did similar acts previously, individuals who were relentlessly pursued by the same elected public official, Auditor Dave Yost.
One year later, I am waiting for the courtesy of a reply from the Ohio Auditor of State, elected by the people to ensure that public funds are expended in a proper fashion and that in doing so, a proper public purpose for such expenditures is assured.
How long does it take for someone to reply to a letter? In the case of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, maybe never.
The Auditor, after receiving the Amsterdam complaint, said in a statement that “we will review this complaint as we do every complaint we receive from citizens and other interested parties, following our standard process and timeline. It is our policy not to comment on ongoing reviews.”
Hmm. Every complaint. I wonder where I am on Yost’s timeline in expecting a reply?
Based upon my experience with the Ohio Auditor, I still await his review of my letter addressed to him on October 11, 2015. It is my hope that as a professional courtesy, he will provide a response to me before his response to the October 11, 2016 complaint of Robert Amsterdam of Amsterdam and Partners.
As the attorneys like to say, it’s about professional courtesy. Dear Auditor Yost, I’ve been waiting in line and I’m still waiting for the courtesy of a reply. Let me hear from you.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.