Stockman and Soderlund have performed a huge public service that is rare in American journalism today, with a three part investigation of Imagine Schools, Inc., a charter chain gang outfit operated by lunatic megalomaniac, Dennis Bakke. Here is a clip from Part One of "Education Inc:"
FORT WAYNE, Ind. – The local school board was about to spend almost $100,000 of taxpayer money on a busing service for students.
But there was no discussion of bids to ensure taxpayers got the best deal. There were no questions about cost, insurance or alternatives to this contract awarded to a southern Indiana trucking company.
Most importantly, there was no vote.
Despite spending millions of tax dollars a year, the board of this public school votes on almost nothing.
Not the $87,510 a year to operate school buses. Not $114,871 to run a lunch program. Not which teachers are hired or whether to hold summer school, or even whether to borrow more than $1 million for operations.
All those decisions and many more were made by a private company from Virginia, though Internal Revenue Service regulations say tax-exempt organizations such as this one must have independent, local control.
Welcome to Imagine charter schools.
When Imagine board members do make major decisions, they often do so by signing papers outside of public meetings, with no public debate and no public vote. Instead of local control, a Journal Gazette investigation found, executives with the for-profit management company tell the Fort Wayne board members how decisions will be made and how money will be spent.
Local school officials deny any wrongdoing. Imagine corporate officials, who operate two Fort Wayne schools and hope to open a third next year, did not return calls for comment.
“We’ve not heard any comment from the IRS in any way that I’m aware of,” said Don Willis, a local businessman who founded the Imagine charter schools in Fort Wayne and is chairman of the Imagine-Fort Wayne Charter School board.
Other board members refused to answer questions or said they did not know the answers.
Founded in 2006 and opened to students in the fall of 2007, Imagine-Fort Wayne Charter School Inc. is a local non-profit agency that supposedly runs Imagine MASTer Academy, a public charter school paid for with taxes. Its sister entity, IFWCS Campus II, runs Imagine Schools on Broadway, and IFWCS Campus III will run the planned Imagine Bridge Academy.
Charter schools are public schools, funded by the state on a per-student basis. They can also receive money from federal grants, state tuition support and private foundations, but they are free of some of the regulations imposed on traditional public schools, so they can use innovative techniques and try to improve education.
Imagine Schools Inc., a for-profit company in Arlington, Va., makes nearly every important decision in Fort Wayne and has even used the local agency’s non-profit status to expand its charter school empire of 73 schools in 12 states.
“Ultimately, for all charities, the board of directors should be the entity that has full oversight and control over the organization,” said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, a national charity-monitoring organization based in Virginia. “The staff reports to the board of directors, not the other way around.”
That might be news to board members, the IRS, state regulators and the Hoosiers whose tax dollars pay for those schools. For the 2007-08 school year, Imagine MASTer Academy received $2.9 million in taxes, plus a $1.24 million low-interest loan from the state. . . .
Do read on. And on.
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