A Hartford charter school group under state investigation is being pulled from a Bridgeport public school that it was managing with state funds, education officials said Wednesday.
Bridgeport interim Superintendent Frances Rabinowitz said she intends to end the district's partnership with FUSE, which received $435,000 to run Dunbar School this past year, and will present the termination plan Thursday to the local school board.
State education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, a supporter of FUSE until disclosures last month that the group's CEO had a criminal record and misrepresented his academic credentials, said he agreed with the action.
"Recent revelations regarding FUSE have given rise to significant concerns regarding the organization's ability to continue working with Dunbar," Pryor said in a joint statement with Rabinowitz.
Also on Wednesday, former FUSE executive Andrea Comer resigned from the State Board of Education. Comer, a charter school advocate appointed to the board by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said she didn't want to become a distraction and apologized "for any unfair scrutiny this body ... has faced due to my affiliation with my former employer."
The developments come a week after published reports that FUSE, which also manages the heavily state-financed Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford, had employed a registered sex offender as a community outreach coordinator at Dunbar despite a management agreement stating that "no employee of Jumoke who will work at Dunbar or who will work directly with Dunbar students is listed on any Sex Offender Registry."
Rabinowitz told The Courant that FUSE failed to inform her of the employee's criminal record, which included drug convictions, until last week and that she was "incredibly concerned."
Rabinowitz questioned whether the unraveling charter organization, also known as Family Urban Schools of Excellence, should continue running Dunbar School under a year-old arrangement through the state Commissioner's Network, a reform initiative that gives millions in extra funding to struggling schools that implement a three- to five-year turnaround plan.
Pryor and Rabinowitz said in Wednesday's statement that "teachers, students and parents have demonstrated commendable resolve to turn around Dunbar. They deserve a partner who will be able to provide the attention and support necessary for the work that lies ahead."
With Pryor's approval and endorsement from local school boards, the charter group has received more than $1 million in state-funded fees to manage Dunbar and Hartford's Milner School. The Milner partnership was terminated last month.
At Pryor's request, the State Board of Education commissioned an investigation of FUSE and the Jumoke schools last week following stories in The Courant disclosing that FUSE's CEO, Michael M. Sharpe, had a criminal background that included 1989 guilty pleas to charges that he embezzled more than $100,000 and conspired to defraud a California public transit agency when Sharpe served as its real estate manager.
Sharpe, 62, who had been known as Dr. Sharpe, also claimed to have a doctoral degree until acknowledging to The Courant that it was bogus. Sharpe resigned on June 21.
A week later, after more upheaval at FUSE — the chief academic officer left the organization and Comer, the chief development officer, put in her resignation — the founders of a new charter school in New Haven said they were severing ties with the group.
FUSE had a state-approved agreement to run Booker T. Washington Academy, which was scheduled to open in the coming months with 225 students and nearly $2.5 million in state funding. Charter schools in Connecticut receive $11,000 per student.
Leaders at the academy have since been scrambling to craft a new proposal for the state to consider that would allow the school to open. The Rev. Eldren Morrison, who has been trying to establish a charter school for the past five years, asked the state board Wednesday to have a special session this summer to "vet that plan."
Meanwhile, the Hartford school system has regained control of Milner. The termination notice, mailed June 20 after the revelations about Sharpe's past, followed district complaints to the state over FUSE's work at the school, such as concerns over nepotism, job offers extended to people with criminal records or few qualifications, and a muddled curriculum.
Over the past two years, Hartford paid FUSE and Jumoke Academy an annual $345,000 operations fee to run Milner through the Commissioner's Network.
Since Jumoke Academy's founding in 1997, the charter school has received $53 million in state grants, according to state education department spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly. Sharpe became Jumoke's CEO in 2003 and joined FUSE when it was formed two years ago as Jumoke's management organization.
The state's investigation, led by Hartford attorney Frederick L. Dorsey, will cover the group's finances, governance and operations.
The probe and unfolding scandal has left Jumoke Academy families nervous. At a parent meeting in Hartford Monday night, more than 100 people sat in the elementary charter school's gymnasium as mothers and fathers aired complaints and concerns over high administrative salaries, nepotism, lagging academic standards and whether any current employees have criminal records.
In Bridgeport, Mack Allen, 49, had been employed by FUSE as a community outreach coordinator at Dunbar until public revelations last week about his criminal background, which includes a listing on the Texas sex offender registry for an incident that Allen says occurred in his youth. Allen's record surfaced in a confidential background check that a law firm performed for FUSE in January.
But the charter group didn't inform Rabinowitz about it until last week, after she requested background information on several FUSE employees as part of an audit. Allen told The Courant that he has turned his life around and that he fully disclosed his criminal past to Sharpe and others at FUSE when they hired him.
Pryor said Wednesday that although Bridgeport is cutting ties with FUSE, "the hope and expectation" is that Dunbar will continue to be part of the Commissioner's Network. He added that he supports a new partnership between Dunbar and Cooperative Educational Services, the Bridgeport region's educational service center, for the next two years.
Pryor also told the State Board of Education Wednesday that his department has begun a comprehensive analysis of how it oversees charter schools.
That review will include "the completion and reporting of background checks" and "public transparency," said Pryor, who is expected to make recommendations on improvements by Aug. 11.
In response to The Courant's requests for information, such as lists of employees and salaries, FUSE has taken the position that it is "a private non-profit company" exempt from disclosure requirements under the state Freedom of Information Act, according to FUSE's lawyer and acting co-CEO Heidi Hamilton.
State law says that charter schools are treated as public agencies for FOI purposes; that applies to the Jumoke Academy organization and the few charter schools it operates locally.
Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, said recently that although state law doesn't explicitly say a charter school management organization is subject to the FOI law, court decisions have determined that it is.
"FUSE should be providing this information now, under current Connecticut law," Fleischmann argued.
The co-chairwoman on the education committee, Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, has criticized FUSE and said that if state laws do not require charter management organizations to disclose the same kind of information mandated of municipal school systems, then the legislature next year should change the laws to ensure that they do.Copyright © 2015, CT Now