State Board Approves Probe Of Charter School Company

HARTFORD — Jolted by revelations about a charter school group, the State Board of Education commissioned a law firm to investigate the Jumoke Academy charter organization Monday.

The board acted at a special meeting where new policies were unveiled requiring employee background checks and antinepotism rules for charter schools.

State education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said the investigation, which will be done by Hartford attorney Frederick L. Dorsey, will cover the finances, governance and operations of Family Urban Schools of Excellence and its Jumoke schools.

"We perceive this process being one that looks beyond the mere or pure financial to ensure that we have a strong organization to carry forward," Pryor said.

But one state education board member questioned whether FUSE has become too "dysfunctional" to manage the Connecticut schools it oversees.

"I've got to believe it's in turmoil," board member Joseph Vrabely said.

The action comes 10 days after FUSE's chief executive officer, Michael M. Sharpe, who previously ran the Jumoke schools, resigned after disclosures that he had a criminal record that included an embezzlement conviction and that he falsely claimed to have a doctoral degree.

Sharpe resigned June 21 after The Courant published stories about his record and false credentials. The Courant also reported that Sharpe's relatives had been hired for various positions in the FUSE and Jumoke operations.

The new administrative polices were prompted by these revelations. Pryor said the department will require charter schools and charter management groups to conduct background checks on all employees, and charter groups will be required to have clear policies against nepotism and conflicts of interest.

"There are such policies among many charter schools already," Pryor said, but he wants to ensure "a clarity of policy at the local charter school level."

Critics who attended the board's meeting questioned whether the state agency that has backed FUSE's proposals for expansion should spearhead the investigation.

"This is a farce," said Maria Pereira, a former Bridgeport Board of Education board member, who was among several protesters holding up anti-charter school signs at the meeting, and objected to the state Department of Education commissioning the investigation.

Jonathan Pelto, a charter school opponent who is attempting a third-party run for governor, argued that the hiring of Dorsey to investigate is a belated attempt by education officials to look like they're carrying out their duty of overseeing charter schools – when in fact they've failed.

"It's not just the fox dialing 911 when the chickens have disappeared – it's the fox with the chicken feathers hanging out of their mouth dialing 911," said Pelto, who suggested the state auditors should conduct the probe.

Pryor said he isn't sure how much the investigation will cost, but expects to have it started within a week, with preliminary results available in a month.

Board member Charles Jaskiewicz mentioned the idea of Dorsey's consulting criminal prosecutors in the state's attorney's office in case such issues arise. He also suggested that Dorsey be in contact with the office of state Attorney General George Jepsen, who handles non-criminal legal matters.

After the meeting, Pryor indicated that while contacts with Jepsen's office have been made, there has been no contact with prosecutors.

Until The Courant revealed that Sharpe didn't have a doctorate 1½ weeks ago, Pryor's department was still referring to him as Dr. Sharpe. Asked how the department failed to discover Sharpe lacked that key credential, and whether it had "dropped the ball," Pryor said: "That's one of the questions we will be looking at."

Jaskiewicz said Dorsey may want to accelerate certain areas of investigation to ensure that the board has key information in time for the start of school.

Chief among the concerns, state board of education members said, is whether FUSE, which also lost two key administrators who resigned last week, is still a viable management group.