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email: email@example.com Dear Mr. Maly: I’m writing to address a number of concerns and complaints regarding the Community School of Excellence (CSE), a school for which the Concordia University is the authorizer. Pursuant to Minnesota Statutes, section 124D.10 subdivision 3(c) and (j), Concordia has legal responsibilities for the ongoing oversight of CSE, and the commissioner has the legal responsibility to hold all authorizers accountable for satisfactory performance of their statutorily-described duties. At least two of the issues are issues about which the department has previously informed Concordia. First, some complainants raised a serious concern about how CSE uses free- and reduced-price lunch funds, including having students punch in for meals they do not consume. CSE was recently required to repay over $200,000 of misused food and nutrition (FNS) funds for similar issues. FNS has already opened an investigation into the new allegations. Several complaints also discussed CSE’s handling of maltreatment complaints. You will recall that the department contacted you last year to discuss CSE’s maltreatment policy at the time, which required that school personnel report suspected maltreatment only to the school’s director, who would then make a determination as to whether to actually report maltreatment to the appropriate external agency. After several months, CSE changed its policy to reflect that individuals were required to report externally, as required by law, but were also required to immediately report the issue to the school’s director. It appears from the complaints received that CSE is still continuing to violate the law as regards reporting maltreatment. School personnel are discouraged from reporting and when they do choose to report, it appears that the director interferes with these investigations. A complainant provided information about a school staff member who reported child abuse to the appropriate authorities. After the report, the director contacted the parents directly and asked the individual who reported the suspected abuse to sit down with the student’s parents and explain the “misunderstanding.” Some complainants also raised concerns about how the school conducted board elections in May, 2013. First, it appears that the election itself was held during a musical event at the school and ballots were distributed and the actual voting occurred during the musical event itself. Though teaching staff requested biographies of the candidates prior to the election, they did not receive the prior to ballot distribution. According to the complaints, the ballots were unclear as to how many candidates voters could choose, as there were three openings on the board. Further, the complaint states that parents who
were voters were tracked by signing in to the event at which the election was held, but no other tracking of ballots occurred. The complaint also alleges that the Director informed the voters how to vote, including pointing to which ballot boxes voters should check. Staff members who were eligible to vote generally declined to do so, stating that they’d been instructed to remain at their teaching or staff duties during the election while watching the proceedings via livestream and were unaware of the qualifications of individual candidates. There was also confusion as to what percentage of the electorate was required to vote in order for the election to be valid. One board member reported she was appointed, not elected, to be on the board. Other complaints stated that the director holds board meetings without notice or information about location, thus ensuring that the public cannot participate. Numerous complainants alleged a persistent pattern of poor employment practices by the director of the school. Allegations include that the director threatens staff for disagreeing with her, reported a teacher to the Board of Teaching after the teacher resigned her position with CSE, and failed to provide teachers with paid time off and QComp funds that they had already earned. Additionally, complainants state that the 2011-2012 staff handbook was not provided to staff until October 2011, but was backdated until July prior to when staff signed the handbook. Staff were told that they were required to give 6 weeks notice prior to quitting and if they failed to do so, they were required for any expenses the school incurred hiring substitute teachers. A number of complaints also alleged that teachers that were unlicensed or possessed expired licenses. Staff have also expressed concern that any report of wrongdoing of any nature will result in retaliatory action by the director, including firing those individuals. One staff member was informed that if she reported student truancy to the appropriate authorities she would be fired. Finally, there are a number of allegations that the school misuses the federal and state funds it receives. The school appears to finance and host a number of social activities for the community at large and for the director’s family, including an annual lengthy trip to Thailand for a number of students. While the school is free to use state funds as it sees fit, it is not permissible to do so with federal funds. Moreover, if the bulk of the school’s funding is going to non-scholastic events, it is difficult to believe that the school is providing the best possible education for students. These complaints therefore raise a number of serious issues that CSE must address immediately. First, it appears that CSE still misunderstands its obligations as regards to FNS funds or is willfully ignoring the laws regarding use of those funds. Given that this issue arose last year and resulted in the department having to conduct a lengthy investigation to recover mis-spent funds, it is imperative that Concordia immediately provide training on proper fiscal reporting as regards federal funds and investigate whether the school’s staff is continuing to require students to request reimbursement for meals they do not eat. Concordia must also ensure that the school is employing adequately trained personnel to create and maintain FNS records. Next, Concordia must investigate how the school handles its maltreatment reporting duties. Again, this exact issue arose in the past and the school provided assurances to Concordia that it had changed its maltreatment policy to conform to state law. It appears that the director is not following the school policy, and is actively discouraging staff to follow the law and immediately report suspected maltreatment to the appropriate external authority. It also appears that the director and is interfering with the maltreatment process by contacting parents suspected of abuse prior to Child Protective Services conducting their legally required investigation. Concordia must also provide training on maltreatment reporting duties to staff, teachers, and the administration of the school. 2
The election concerns the complainants have raised are serious issues, and may be an indication that the board does not understand its responsibility to provide meaningful oversight of the school. Further, it appears that the director may retain complete control of the election process itself. Concordia must investigate the allegations regarding the May 2013 elections and provide information as to the results of that investigation. Concordia must also provide training on how elections are to be conducted moving forward and how Concordia will assist the school in ensuring fair elections. Finally, training about the Open Meeting law will assist the school in understanding that board meetings must be public and adequate notice of the meeting must be provided so that the public can attend. Concordia must also address the numerous employment-related concerns raised by staff. Of greatest importance is the issue that the director appears to retaliate or threaten retaliation when staff point out any wrongdoing at the school. Concordia must provide training on the legal requirements prohibiting retaliation in such situations and investigate whether past retaliation has occurred. Next, Concordia must also look into whether staff handbook signatures were backdated to show, falsely, that individuals consented to the handbook well prior to their actual consent. Concordia should also investigate whether the current handbook retains the provision requiring employees to pay for their substitute in the event they leave with less than 6 weeks notice. Concordia must also investigate whether employees were denied pay to which they were rightfully entitled and, if so, ensure that those employees receive that pay. Concordia must also undertake a general investigation into the school’s finances to ensure that funds are not being mis-spent. Please provide the Department with a written response no later than August 9, 2013, indicating the steps you have taken to address this issues and providing copies of any revised policies, training provided, or investigation results. Given the number and severity of the allegations, Concordia may wish to consider retaining an outside investigator to conduct these activities. Thank you. Sincerely, s/ Lisa M. Needham Lisa Needham Charter School Compliance Liaison c: Mo Chang, Executive Director, Community School of Excellence: firstname.lastname@example.org Letha Wilson-Bernard, Board Chair, Community School of Excellence: email@example.com Charles Opp, Authorizer Liaison, Concordia: firstname.lastname@example.org Cindy Murphy, Charter Center Director: email@example.com Kevin McHenry, Assistant Commissioner: firstname.lastname@example.org
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