Two months ago I wrote a post about a charter school in Oakland that had been the beneficiary of a massive public relations campaign, abetted by gullible journalists at the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Alter, and others eager to declare the triumph of the charter idea.

I mention this again because a reader sent a comment extolling this school as an example of what charters can accomplish, if freed of all regulation by the state.

The school–really three schools–is the American Indian Charter School. According to legend, it served the poorest of the poor, the needy children of American Indians, and through the grit of its founder Ben Chavis, it rose to become one of the highest performing schools in the state.

Then came news of an audit, and it was a shocker. 

It seems that Chavis was under investigation because millions of dollars were missing. Closer investigation indicated that the school was enrolling East Asian children, not American Indian children.

The Oakland trustees narrowly decided to renew the school’s charter because of its high test scores.

Question: Is it enough to get high test scores, by any means necessary? Or it is appropriate to expect that those who receive public funding will act with full disclosure and integrity, not to enrich themselves but to provide for the school and the children?

Here is part of the article linked above:

Between mid-2007 and the end of 2011, the school paid Chavis, his wife, Marsha Amador, and their various real estate and consulting businesses about $3.8 million, the auditors found. Many of those payments were made with state and federal facilities grants in the form of construction contracts to Chavis’ companies — business deals for school construction work that never went out to bid.

Meanwhile, the school’s weak governing board did little to stand in the way, auditors found. For a short period of time last year, Chavis served on the board while he was employed as the organization’s director and his wife was handling the books.

“The lack of due diligence and internal controls by the governing board has effectively granted the founder and his spouse unrestricted access to the assets of the organization and implied authority to enter into a variety of business arrangements for personal gain,” the report stated.

Other findings included the opening and closing of bank accounts without approval and $25,700 in credit card purchases billed to the school with no authorization or apparent benefit to the school. They included airfare, restaurant, hotel and retail bills from out-of-state, including the North Carolina town where Chavis owns a farm; DirecTV; Giants tickets; and costs related to another venture, which foundered after the investigation became public — the opening of a charter school in Arizona.

Chavis announced his retirement before the start of 2007-08 school year and returned to the school as director in 2011. He said at a recent hearing that he was a paid adviser during some of the time in between.

Chavis could not be immediately reached for comment.

Although Chavis did not found the original school, his name and reputation are most closely associated with the organization. A Lumbee Indian from North Carolina, he overhauled the academic program when he took over as director of the original school in East Oakland’s Laurel District in 2000.

The new curriculum emphasized reading, writing and math and eliminated much of the school’s Native American cultural teachings. Chavis instilled a strict and unorthodox discipline system that would bring notoriety to the school, sometimes using humiliation to motivate students to behave.

The most famous example of Chavis’ brand of discipline is a student head-shaving that took place at a school assembly, with parent permission, after the boy was caught stealing. Today, few if any of the school’s students are Native American.

Chavis announced his retirement shortly after the Oakland school district’s charter schools office began raising concerns about his conduct. That spring, the East Bay Express published a story about an explosive incident involving a Mills College professor and graduate students who had come to tour the school. An African-American graduate student said Chavis cursed at him and aggressively kicked him out of the school — claims that Chavis later acknowledged to be true, saying it was because the student came late.

The Oakland school district’s charter school office, under new leadership, again expressed concerns this year when one of the three schools, American Indian Public Charter School II, applied for a renewed charter. The charter office recommended that the Oakland school board deny the charter renewal, potentially closing the school.

But at a packed hearing in which Chavis entered to rousing applause, the Oakland school board went against the charter school office’s recommendation and, in a 4-3 vote, allowed the high-performing school to stay open.

Chris Dobbins, an Oakland school board member who supported the school at that meeting, said Wednesday afternoon that he couldn’t “tear the school apart” because of the alleged improprieties of its leader. Even now, he said, he didn’t have an easy answer.

“At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue those test scores,” he said. “It’s a really hard question.”

Read Katy Murphy’s Oakland schools blog at Follow her

evidence against chavis
The Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance team published the below findings about apparent conflicts of interest and misappropriation of funds at American Indian Model schools — mostly by its founder and current director, Ben Chavis:
  • Publicly funded construction contracts for school improvements with Chavis’ personal businesses were “not supported by formal contracts, competitive bidding or authorization by the governing board.” That is a violation of federal regulations and could result in the loss of all federal funding to AIMS schools.
  • In addition to wages and construction income, Chavis collected $2.8 million from the schools through rent and storage fees he charged as the school landlord, additional construction projects and a mandatory summer program run by his private business. Some checks from a school bank account were written to Chavis’ companies and signed by Chavis.
  • In all, the schools made $3.8 million in payments to Chavis, his wife and their businesses from 2007-08 through the end of 2011.
  • Chavis’ wife, Marsha Amador, provided financial administrative services to the schools. Her duties included general accounting; processing accounts payable; compliance reporting to local, state and federal agencies; and assisting with an annual audit.
  • Chavis’ personal and unrelated business expenses were commingled with purchases for the AIMS schools.
  • About 35 percent of the credit card purchases paid for from the schools’ accounts — $25,700 — “were inappropriate or lack proper authorization.” Many of the purchases originated out of state.