Oakland, California: Charter school head investigated for fraud

By Russell Roller
24 April 2012

The American Indian Public Charter School II in Oakland, California was recently under an investigation that threatened to shut down the school. The probe into the charter school was prompted after a former employee blew the whistle on suspicious financial activity between the school and a real estate company owned by the school’s founder and “chief executive,” Ben Chavis. Chavis’s company also owns the building leased to the school in the urban East Oakland Laurel District.

The Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team that conducted the investigation has brought into question up to $3 million of questionable transactions over the past three years between the charter school and Chavis’s real estate company. The allegation is that Chavis has been embezzling with the aid of his wife, who works as an administrator as well as a consultant to the school. The team concluded that “several companies that conduct business with the charter schools are owned by the founder and/or his spouse, and payment for these services are signed by one or both of these individuals.”

According to the San Jose Mercury News, a separate audit concluded that the school’s governing board was not involved in these financial transactions. “When an organization lacks internal controls and governing board oversight is minimal,” the auditing team wrote in a letter to Alameda County Superintendent Sheila Jordan, “the likelihood of fraud greatly increases.”

Chavis is in control of such a large amount of public education funds due to the national ranking in test scores held by his schools, which relentlessly teach to standardized tests. Chavis cuts costs by hiring nonunion, and sometimes even non-credentialed teachers because they can be paid less.

According to the American Indian Model Schools web site, school founder Chavis “was born into a Lumbee Indian family of sharecroppers and as a youngster attended Indian segregated public schools in Robeson County, North Carolina.” Chavis is a graduate from Pima College and the University of Arizona.

Ben Chavis has been a very controversial figure since founding the American Indian Public Charter School in 2000. Since opening the original middle school, he has opened another as well as a charter high school. He credits the schools’ strict disciplinary methods with propelling them into some of the top test-performing public schools in the country.

Chavis uses this achievement to justify a very narrow academic philosophy in which the entire purpose is to prepare students for tests. Chavis’s charter schools discourage individual expression by not teaching any form of art or shop classes, and keep physical education to an absolute minimum. The schools view the use of computers as irrelevant in a classroom setting.

In 2007, Chavis’s disciplinary practices came into question when a local college professor, Sabrina Zirkel, took a group of graduate students to one of his schools. One of the students, Unity Lewis, was 15 minutes late, and Chavis took it upon himself to deal with him directly.

Lewis, who is African American, recalled the incident in a complaint letter, writing: “He pushed his chest into my shoulder and begun to usher me out of the building, shouting profanities and insults in my face. He called me a ‘(expletive) minority punk’ at least five times and shouted, ‘I’m going to kick your ass’ at least seven times.’ He said ... I was a ‘worthless piece of (expletive) people have been making excuses for’ all of my life.”

Before this incident, Chavis had previously been known for humiliating children as well as their parents as a form of punishment. One student had to carry an orange cone around for two weeks after reportedly using profanity and making racist remarks to a fellow classmate, only to be placed into a lower grade at the end of the two-week sentence.

Another student had to shave his head after being accused of stealing. One parent who tried to drop off her child’s forgotten lunch later received a letter from Chavis inquiring about her state of mind. He wrote: “1. You are on drugs. 2. You have psychological problems. 3. You are a liar. Could it be that all the above apply to you? I know that numbers two and three are right on target.”

Chavis’s sarcastic and abrasive educational philosophy pervades the American Indian Model Schools web site. The seventh of the schools’ “Ten Commandments” reads: “Thou shalt be aware of quacks who believe in communism. Thou hast the quickest route to freedom through free market capitalism and private property ownership. Hast thou ever heard of illegal immigrants risking their lives to enter Cuba?”

Indeed, Chavis continuously boasts of free-market capitalism to his students, and why shouldn’t he? It is through the financial elite’s attack on public education that Chavis has been able to take advantage of his students and build a reputation on test scores while diverting public funds from impoverished schools in the district that should be used to broaden students’ curriculum.

Under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Program, standardized test scores are being used as a lever to dismantle public education in favor of privately owned charter schools. As funding is cut, public schools find it harder and harder to meet testing goals, and more “entrepreneurs” like Chavis see an opportunity to make a quick profit through slashing teachers’ wages and benefits, and removing traditional job securities.

In a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Chavis was asked about the financial relationships he nurtured between his companies and the schools, to which he responded, “Sure did, I’ve charged the school for some s---. I don’t deny it.”

On April 4, the Oakland school board voted 4-3 to keep American Indian Public Charter School II open against the recommendation of the district’s own charter school office. In the end, the issue that trumped a fraud investigation and the school’s abusive practices was test scores. According to a self-described friend of Chavis, School Board Member Alice Spearmen, “We don’t have one school in the Oakland school district with that kind of score.”

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