Report: Ohio charter school network rife with conflicts

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Report details problems with charters

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

In a cramped fourth-floor conference room a block from the Ohio Statehouse on Tuesday, attorney Robert Amsterdam detailed a complicated story that ties together political contributions and international junkets, a charismatic exiled cleric, an attempted coup in Turkey and a string of charter schools operating in Ohio and other states.

Amsterdam, hired by the Republic of Turkey in 2015 to conduct global research into the Gulen network of business and political operations, delivered an 18-page report that itemizes questionable business practices employed by Ohio charter schools. He is asking state Auditor Dave Yost to determine whether Ohio taxpayers are getting ripped off.

Ohio-based Concept Schools Inc. manages 17 charter schools named Horizon Science Academies and Noble Academies — three of which are located in Dayton. Concept Schools was founded by a group of Turkish-American teachers linked to Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Ohio taxpayers are indirectly financing a group designated by the Republic of Turkey as a terrorist organization — one that attempted a bloody coup of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, in July, Amsterdam said. Erdogan links the coup leaders to Gulen — a claim he denies — and believes the United States is harboring Gulen.

“Until the coup, virtually nobody would meet with us. Now, post-coup, people are getting a little concerned that maybe there is more to this organization than we realized,” Amsterdam said.

Amsterdam’s team found problems with Concept Schools business practices in Ohio that include:

- Filing charter school board slots with people of Turkish descent and allowing the same 38 people to occupy 85 board posts for various schools;

- Creating a closed-loop of decision making devoid of checks and balances;

- Forcing charter schools into expensive, long-term leases and excessive rents paid to New Plan Learning, the real estate arm of Concept Schools;

- Using profits generated from the high rents to acquire new properties to be leased out to new Concept-operated charter schools;

- Allowing charter board members to be paid vendors to the schools.

“Concept and its charter schools have a long history of abusing the public’s trust, including misusing public funds for private purposes, self-dealing within its Turkish cultural network, discriminatory behavior toward non-Turkish employees and students, and large-scale fraud,” the report said. “In almost of all of these cases, the issues can be traced to the blurred lines of loyalty between Concept, its schools’ employees and governing boards, and its vendors.”

Mark Weaver, spokesman for Concept Schools, called the allegations false and called the report’s backers “a teachers’ union-affiliated group and a foreign agent.”

“The last time this group made such allegations about Concept Schools, state education officials and the auditor of state’s office found them to be incorrect and false,” Weaver said. “We expect the same will occur with these latest allegations. Sadly, these false allegations undermine the hard work and success of our students, many of whom already face serious challenges.”

Ron Adler, executive director of the pro-charter group Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, said he hadn’t seen the report Tuesday but it reminded him of a slew of allegations leveled in 2014 against Horizon schools by teachers unions and liberal groups.

“I suspect this is one more thing to be drumming up to put political pressure onto charter schools,” he said. “These are good schools.”

“They’ve got students that have graduated from MIT, Johns Hopkins, West Point, with full scholarships,” he said. “They should talk to parents or talk to schools because they will find kids are learning and they’re doing a great job.”

The report and press conference drew the attention of a news crew from Turkish Radio and Television.

The FBI has an ongoing investigation into allegations that Concept employees and vendors colluded to defraud a federal grant program of millions of dollars.

Amsterdam said the Gulen movement has made a massive investment in American politics, including campaign contributions and sponsoring trips to Turkey for U.S. politicos.

Yost’s office said: “We will review this complaint as we do every complaint we receive from citizens and other interested parties, following our standard process and timeline. It is our policy not to comment on ongoing reviews.”