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.
Vrabely asked whether the state is "allowing a totally dysfunctional organization in FUSE to manage our children."
Pryor said that determining the viability of FUSE will be part of Dorsey's investigation. He also noted that the original Jumoke Academy school, founded in 1997, "ranks among the highest performing schools in the state," and said he hopes to reach a resolution that ensures that children continue to reap the benefits of a high-performing school.
It was a sentiment echoed by several board members, including Jaskiewicz, who said, "I do not want to take this personnel matter and penalize children who want to be educated."
Another matter to be resolved is whether FUSE will continue managing Dunbar School in Bridgeport as part of the state Commissioner's Network, a reform initiative to raise achievement at low-performing schools. FUSE took over Dunbar's operations in the 2013-14 year, and state officials said there are some indicators of success, including a better school climate and attendance.
Fran Rabinowitz, interim Bridgeport superintendent, said she has serious concerns about the arrangement with FUSE, which has received $435,000 in state funds to manage the school.
For the past two years, FUSE also managed Hartford's Milner School. But after complaints about FUSE and disclosures about Sharpe's past, Hartford school officials terminated their partnership and will regain control of Milner as of Tuesday.
Andrea Johnson, president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, said Monday that FUSE performed poorly at Milner and should return the nearly $700,000 it has received in state-funded fees to run the school.
"This whole thing has been messed up from the beginning," Johnson said.
State Board of Education members expressed concern Monday that they weren't informed of the Hartford turmoil and complaints about FUSE when they voted in early April to approve FUSE's proposal to work with a new charter school planned for New Haven, the Booker T. Washington Academy.
On Saturday, administrators for the charter school severed ties with FUSE.
Board member Estela Lopez questioned why the State Board of Education was not informed of the feud between Hartford school officials and FUSE over Milner School before the board, acting on Pryor's recommendation, approved the charter school. "To me that may have been significant information to have in front of us," Lopez said, adding that it might have helped the board "make a wiser choice."
Pryor attributed the Milner tension to "organizational frictions" that he said are typical of school turnaround projects, whereas start-up charter schools such as Booker T. Washington Academy are "a different kind of enterprise." Among Hartford's complaints was a lack of instructional materials at Milner.
Later, board Chairman Allan Taylor said his vote for the New Haven charter school "might have" been different if the board had known about the Milner problems.
The State Board of Education will also have to address the future for Booker T. Washington Academy, which is scheduled to open in the coming months.
Jaskiewicz asked whether it was possible to delay its opening a year, now that FUSE, which had been hired to run daily operations, has been removed from the school. "To me that little delay means a bigger success down the road," Jaskiewicz said. "My personal opinion is this is a real rush."
Pryor said the school's founders want the chance to present a new plan that does not include FUSE. The State Board of Education is expected to consider that proposal this summer.
Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of the education reform advocacy group ConnCAN, said in a statement that she supported Pryor's actions.
"Charter schools, like all public schools, should be congratulated for their successes and held accountable for their failures," Alexander said.
One absentee from Monday's meeting was Andrea Comer, a board member who had been employed by FUSE as a top administrator but submitted her resignation from the charter school organization last week. Taylor said Comer is recusing herself from any action involving FUSE, but said there was no reason she should resign from the education board.