Soundings

Ben Boychuk
Ben Chavis’s Last Stand
Oakland educrats try to kill a phenomenally successful charter school system.
Summer 2013

By every measure, the American Indian Model Schools (AIMS), a charter school system based in Oakland, California, puts that embattled city’s traditional public schools to shame. One of AIMS’s three campuses, the American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS), ranked fifth last year among the state’s middle schools in the Academic Performance Index, California’s instrument for assessing its public schools. The American Indian Public Charter School II, which serves 650 students from kindergarten through eighth grade, ranked first in the district and fourth in the state. U.S. News and World Report placed the system’s third campus, the American Indian Public High School, 38th on its list of the best high schools in America. In the state’s English language arts tests, 87 percent of AIMS students score as “proficient” or “advanced,” compared with 47 percent district-wide. In math, the breakdown is 88 percent for AIMS versus 46 percent for the district; in history and social science, it’s 98 percent versus 31 percent. Oh, and AIMS accomplishes all that while spending roughly half the amount of money per pupil that the district does.

And yet, barring some last-minute intervention by California’s State Board of Education, all three schools could be shut down by the end of the 2013–14 school year and their students scattered to inferior neighborhood schools across the city. In March, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) officials decided to revoke AIMS’s charters, claiming that its former director, Ben Chavis, had “repeatedly broken the law, engaging in financial mismanagement, and violated the terms of its charter.” What’s more, the district said, “when provided numerous opportunities to reform its practices, AIMS’s [new management] failed to make changes that would address these issues and protect public funds.” Despite a new state law requiring district officials to make students’ academic performance and improvement the “paramount consideration” in deciding whether to revoke school charters, the district claimed that AIMS’s sins were simply too severe—and that Chavis’s influence remained too great—for it to remain open. On June 24, the Alameda County Board of Education voted to uphold the OUSD decision. (An Alameda County superior court judge ruled on July 8 that the schools may remain open while their appeal to the state is pending.)

The district alleges that Chavis and his wife, Marsha, personally profited from AIMS to the tune of $3.8 million through various real-estate deals, lease agreements, and consulting contracts. Chavis readily admits to almost everything but insists that it was all fully disclosed and aboveboard. Did his construction company do remodeling work on the schools’ bathrooms? Yes—it was the lowest bidder on the project. Did Chavis’s wife perform accounting services for the schools? Yes—and for several other Oakland charter schools as well. Did Chavis lease property to the schools? “I did,” he told the Alameda County board. “I leased them for $1.09 [per square foot]. The market is $2 per square foot. My mortgage was eighty-some thousand a month. I leased for $70,000. How did I benefit?” Further, Chavis points out that all his financial transactions were approved by his board and listed in the schools’ IRS 990 forms and that the schools were subject to annual audits as a condition of at least one foundation’s grants.

Chavis does deny categorically the charge that he wrote checks to himself. He provides images of numerous checks with two signatures, showing that he had board approval for everything. “If I stole,” he asks, “how come the D.A. hasn’t done anything?” In fact, OUSD last year referred its findings to the Alameda County District Attorney, who decided not to act.

Ultimately, Oakland’s case for revoking AIMS’s charter hinged on the claim that Chavis had violated California’s Political Reform Act of 1974, which regulates conflicts of interest among public officials. The law requires a public official, elected or otherwise, to disclose any conflicts of interest and recuse himself from any decisions that might involve improper influence and lead to undue financial gain. Usually, the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission would oversee enforcement of the PRA. The commission would make a determination of wrongdoing and levy fines on violators, and life would go on. But the commission isn’t involved in this case. And neither Oakland Unified nor Alameda County education officials would entertain AIMS’s arguments that it had replaced all the old board members connected with Chavis, or that it had put new financial controls in place, or that it had hired two new interim directors, or that Chavis himself was completely out of the picture. (He stepped down as the schools’ executive director in June 2012, forced out by his board of directors in the wake of the OUSD audit that led to the decision to revoke the charter.)

The county board of education did discount several of Oakland Unified’s more explosive claims, including one alleging that Chavis had misused the schools’ credit card. In fact, the culprit was Sophat May, the woman who sat in Chavis’s chair between his first retirement in 2007 and his short-lived return, which started in 2011. Alameda also dismissed, for lack of evidence, claims that Chavis had lost $30,000 of school money on a real-estate deal and let a teacher forge signatures on student attendance. But Alameda nonetheless concluded: “It is irrelevant that the contracts were reviewed by the Board, or that Dr. Chavis gave AIMS a favorable rental rate, or that AIMS has separated itself from Dr. Chavis, or that Dr. Chavis has not been criminally prosecuted for his actions.”

On the contrary, it’s most relevant to the more than 1,200 families whose children will need to find new schools if the local and county board rulings hold up. It’s relevant, too, because other charter schools have remained open even as their administrators have faced prosecution and prison time for similar allegations of corruption. This past April, for example, a jury in Los Angeles convicted Eugene Selivanov and his wife, Tatyana Berkovich, of embezzling $220,000 from Ivy Academia, the San Fernando Valley charter school that they founded in 2004. Selivanov faces up to 19 years in state prison, and his wife could spend about seven years behind bars for (among other things) misusing the school’s credit card and checking account. Yet more than two years after Selivanov’s and Berkovich’s misdeeds came to light, Ivy Academia’s four campuses remain open to 1,100 students.

Chavis’s accusers are themselves no strangers to financial mismanagement. Oakland Unified spent six years in state receivership. When the state took over the district in 2004, nobody could say for certain where the red ink ended; estimates of its budget deficits ranged from $35 million to $100 million. OUSD emerged from receivership in 2010 still $89 million in debt and remains under state oversight today. In May, the state controller’s office announced the results of its audit of OUSD for the 2010–11 fiscal year, finding the district “noncompliant.” Chavis believes that the district’s ongoing financial woes played a part in its targeting him. “They’re losing $20 million a year to us,” he explains, since the schools’ funding depends partly on their average daily attendance.

In the spring, Chavis, a member of the Lumbee tribe, also claimed that the district was out to destroy him personally. He has certainly made plenty of enemies in the education establishment since taking charge of the failing American Indian Public Charter School in 2000—when OUSD was on the verge of revoking the school’s charter for similar reasons of fiscal mismanagement. He can be brusque, profane, and politically incorrect. What’s more, he doesn’t subscribe to the prevailing progressive notions of education. Under his “American Indian Model,” students remain with the same teacher for the duration of their time in elementary school; the same goes for middle school and high school. The schools heavily emphasize language and math. AIMS has a longer school year than the district does, along with extended hours and a strict code of conduct. Late to class? Detention. Didn’t finish your homework? Detention. Disrupting class? You’d better believe that’s detention. All of which led one of Chavis’s local critics to denounce his methods as “close to child endangerment.” In the real world, though, parents don’t beat down a school’s doors to subject their children to “endangerment.” Even under the cloud of scandal, AIMS’s enrollment grew by 450 students last year.

District officials seem intent on killing Chavis’s model even as they discredit the man. Nobody—not even Oakland Unified—seriously disputes AIMS’s phenomenal success, though a few observers have ascribed it to the fact that the schools’ Asian population has grown significantly in the past decade as their American Indian, black, and Latino populations have declined. “The students’ success is not really connected to the actions of the director,” said OUSD spokesman Troy Flint. “And personally, I don’t want to discount their achievements. There is no evidence their achievements were done illegitimately. We don’t want to take that from the kids.” Yet Oakland is poised to do exactly that.

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