Criminal convictions and past imprisonment of Michael M. Sharpe, the CEO of a charter school organization that receives millions in taxpayer funds, are worrying Hartford and state officials – who said Wednesday they hadn't known of his record and now want answers.
"I take this very seriously and I'm very troubled by it," city school board Chairman Richard Wareing said Wednesday afternoon.
"We are concerned by this news. There clearly are important questions for Dr. Sharpe to address," echoed Kelly Donnelly, spokeswoman for Commissioner Stefan Pryor of the state Department of Education.
One issue is whether the state's requirements for criminal background checks are strong enough. "We will be reviewing both this case and our procedures," Donnelly said.
The questions arise as Sharpe's organization – Family Urban Schools of Excellence, or FUSE – faces heavy criticism from the Hartford school system over its two-year management of Milner Elementary School. There are accusations of nepotism and concerns over Milner jobs having been offered to people with criminal backgrounds. The Courant reported on the complaints Tuesday.
Tuesday night – after hearing about part of Sharpe's criminal record from a person Wareing described as a "Good Samaritan" – the school board put off a vote on a proposal that would strip many of FUSE's responsibilities at Milner, but still give the charter group $215,000 in state funds to provide a few services in the upcoming 2014-15 school year.
The board expects to make a decision soon on whether to terminate the relationship, but first, Wareing said, the questions about Sharpe need to be addressed.
Sharpe, 62, has been convicted twice on criminal charges. He pleaded guilty in Connecticut Superior Court to two counts of third-degree forgery in 1985 and agreed to pay two fines of $1,000 each. Then after moving to California, he pleaded guilty in 1989 to federal charges of embezzling more than $100,000 and conspiring to defraud the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, or BART, where he had served as the public transportation agency's real estate manager.
Sharpe served 2½ years of a 5-year federal prison sentence, then went back to prison in the early 1990s for a shorter time after a finding that he violated his probation, he confirmed when reached by phone on Wednesday.
"I can come up with a thousand excuses, but the only reality is, it was an untruthful time in my life and it led to some very devastating consequences," Sharpe said. "I was able to really do some deep reflection, and getting support from some important people in my life, I was able to get that right and get back to the kind of person I'd always been before that."
Sharpe said his criminal history "has not been a secret. The state has never asked and it's never been a question. But it's never been a secret. I've had public speaking engagements where I've gone into, you know, how you can make mistakes in your life and how you have to work really hard."
Wareing said that neither he nor other board members, Mayor Pedro Segarra, and top-level Hartford school administrators knew about Sharpe's criminal past until after Tuesday's call by the unidentified "Good Samaritan" — and it bothers them.
"Do people change over the course of 25 years? Sometimes," Wareing said. But he said the matter has become "a trust issue ... This is not the sort of thing you want to hear about from third parties."
The influence of Sharpe's organization extends far beyond its assistance in the management of Milner School in Hartford. It also operates three Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford; manages Dunbar Elementary School in Bridgeport; and received state approval in April to operate the new Booker T. Washington Academy charter school that is scheduled to open soon in New Haven.
In addition, FUSE has received approval to run at least one charter school in Louisiana.
Donnelly, the state education department's spokeswoman, made her comments in a prepared statement and did not address questions that included whether criminal issues involving Sharpe could jeopardize any of its heavily state-financed operations in Connecticut.
Asked if Pryor, the education commissioner, had been aware of Sharpe's criminal history before this week, she said no. She said she didn't know of anyone else at the department who knew.
Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said the governor also hadn't known about Sharpe's criminal record.
Donnelly said that "Jumoke has been subject to annual independent audits to ensure the presence of strong financial practices and policies," with no problems uncovered. Also, at the Jumoke charter schools "there are contractual requirements for background checks for all staff who work primarily with students," she said.
Asked if Sharpe fell into that category, she didn't answer yes or no, but said: "That is a determination … for the two parties of the agreement, the local school district and Jumoke, to decide."