American Indian Model Schools (AIMS) founder Ben Chavis said Tuesday that the Oakland Unified School District’s recent decision to start the process of revoking the three AIM Schools’ charters is unfair and based on biases. “OUSD is upset because I did my job right and they lost students to me,” Chavis said. “They just want their kids back so they can get more state and federal funding.”
School board members voted 6 to 1 to give a “notice of intent to revoke” to AIMS during last week’s school board meeting. AIMS runs two middle schools—American Indian Public Charter School and American Indian Public Charter School II—and one high school, American Indian Public High School. After a public hearing in February and a final vote in March, administrators will have the chance to appeal to Alameda County and the State of California. If they appeal and lose, the schools will close in June. A shutdown would affect over 1,000 downtown and East Oakland students.
The vote came about two months after AIMS administrators submitted a response to a “notice of violations” given to them by the district in September. The notice was the latest in a series given to AIMS administrators alleging improper business contracts, inappropriate credit card usage and lack of school board meeting documentation.
The 1,080-page notice of violations given to AIMS in September was based on a Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team audit requested by the Alameda County of Office of Education, as well as public records and previous correspondence between OUSD and AIMS board members. These included a January 2011 notice of concern from OUSD regarding complaints from anonymous sources about “serious allegations of sexual harassment and verbal or physical abuse of students,” according to the September OUSD report. They also included a complaint about a staff member kissing a 14-year-old female student, and a sexual harassment complaint filed against Chavis in 2011.
After the district issued its notice in September, AIMS administration members were required to provide a written response to the OUSD and a plan for remedial measures. They were also given 60 days to provide missing documents. A response from AIMS was submitted in November, but had not been discussed at a school board meeting until Wednesday. The response, which fills 13 binders, has not yet been made available online.
But a shorter summary of the response, provided by Chavis to Oakland North, addressed the alleged conflict of interest violations. According to the district’s notice, Chavis leased property to AIMS, and its board gave a series of remodeling contracts to his companies, American Delivery Systems and Lumbee Holdings, while he was still the charter schools’ director. Since state laws prohibit public officials, officers and employees from engaging in a contract in which they have a financial interest, Chavis’ membership on the AIMS board and the contracts that financially benefited him appear to be conflicts of interest, according to the FCMAT audit report.
The schools’ response stated that AIMS rented property from Chavis because his rates were cheaper than renting facilities from the school district. The response states that Chavis’ company charged $1.089 per square foot monthly, and OUSD would charge $2.50 per square foot monthly.
During last week’s board meeting, John Yeh, a lawyer from Burke, Williams and Sorenson representing the district, presented a summary of the response to the board and pointed out that the AIMS administrators had confused the district’s per year charge for a per month charge. He pointed out that AIMS could have actually saved over $600,000 and that it was clear that the research in the response wasn’t done correctly.
Speaking Tuesday, Chavis agreed that the research hadn’t been done correctly, but he said that the rental contract was still justified because OUSD didn’t have a big enough property available for AIMS to use when they needed it.
Chavis also said he filed a statement of economic interest disclosing his financial ties regarding the remodeling contracts with the schools, and that the AIMS board agreed to give his company the contract despite other bids. “All the board members knew for a long time what I owned and I didn’t force them to do anything,” he said. “This was the best deal for our school. I don’t understand why we can’t make our decisions on our own.”
Chavis denied that he ever used a school credit card for personal purchases, saying that some of his bills were paid by accident when he let the school use his personal credit card to purchase school supplies.
“That was a mistake. I agree with that,” Chavis said. “But we fixed this mistake that happened once in twelve years. I think that’s pretty good.”
He also briefly addressed a sexual harassment claim that was made against him in August 2011 by a teacher. The teacher sent a letter to a site administrator claiming that Chavis had sexually harassed her on multiple occasions, including in school. Chavis denied the claims, saying that they were made after the woman was fired from an AIMS school. “The claims are ridiculous,” Chavis said. “In front of students? Why would I do anything in front of my students?”
Chavis said the school district has unfairly targeted AIMS despite a record of strong student achievement.
“When OUSD had to shut down five schools last year and got parents all riled up, we were expanding our middle school,” Chavis said. “I have unorthodox methods and some people don’t like that. You can call me a sexist, a racist, whatever. I do what’s best for my kids and it works.”
The three AIMS schools reported a total enrollment of almost 500 students during the 2010-2011 school year; in that year, reports to the California Department of Education indicated that almost 70 percent of the students were Asian, 18 percent were Hispanic and 1 percent were American Indian. For the past few years, the schools have had consistently high Academic Performance Index scores, which measure a school’s yearly progress and determine federal funding. During the 2009-2010 school year, American Indian Public Charter School had an API of 988, the highest of all the schools in the state.
Chavis firmly believes that he is being targeted because if the AIMS schools close, OUSD schools will gain more students, ultimately resulting in more state and federal aid. “They don’t want me around because I’m successful, and they’re losing money because of me,” he said.
But after reviewing AIMS’ official response, most of the members of the school board agreed that there are enough concerns to warrant withdrawing the schools’ charters.
District 1 school board representative Jody London, who voted to give AIMS the notice of intent to revoke, said that in the past few years there have been many problems with the schools, beyond financial and organizational misconduct. “Not only were there clear conflicts of interest, but we have complaints coming in from people involved with the schools, saying that there have been issues with kids not being treated right,” London said. “If this were a low-performing school, people would be screaming bloody murder.”
She also denied that OUSD is trying to shut the school down to get more students, saying that the district’s investigation first arose through a whistleblower from the school itself, not an outsider. “It’s not like we said, ‘Hey, let’s go after AIMS.’ There were enough issues at these schools for someone to step up and try to get help,” London said.
But District 6 representative Christopher Dobbins, a defense attorney and the only school board member who voted against revoking the charters, called Chavis “a galvanizing force” within the school district and said that his attitude and past conflicts with the district were reasons many school board members voted against AIMS. “If this guy really did steal millions of dollars, then the district attorney would be after him,” Dobbins said. “There’s no reason to shut the schools down when the kids are doing well.”
AIMS administrators, staff and teachers are currently deciding what to do next and trying to reassure parents that everything is going to be fine, said administrative assistant and AIMS alumna Karely Ordaz. “We’re the top schools in Alameda County,” said Ordaz. “The parents are confused as to why this has gone so far and we’re just trying to figure out what our next step is going to be.”
A community meeting at Lincoln Elementary School with Superintendent Tony Smith with be held on February 5 at 6 p.m. in which he will discuss next steps with AIMS families. A public hearing for AIMS community members will be held at La Escuelita Education Center on February 13 at 6 p.m. Those who want to offer their opinions and input will be able to speak to the board that day. The OUSD board members’ final decision will be made on March 20 at La Escuelita Education Center.