Officials Report Additional Searches in Spending Probe

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

Investigators who raided the workplace and home of the D.C. Board of Education's executive director of charter schools Wednesday also searched the offices of a company hired by the board and took files from the city's other chartering agency, school and law enforcement officials said yesterday.

The searches were part of a probe into the possible misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and city funds earmarked for programs to boost student achievement at charter schools, government and school sources said.

One of those programs is operated jointly by the Board of Education's charter school office, which oversees 17 of the city's 51 charter schools, and the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the other 34.

FBI agents conducted searches at the office and home of Brenda L. Belton, executive director of the Board of Education's charter school office. And investigators searched the offices of Equal Access in Education, which Belton's office hired to monitor the performance of charter schools, according to law enforcement sources.

In addition, Josephine Baker, executive director of the D.C. Charter School Board, said the D.C. inspector general's office visited her agency and confiscated files from the program that the two chartering agencies run jointly.

Carolyn N. Graham, the Board of Education vice president, said last night that board members knew nothing of the joint program until yesterday.

"The entire board is very concerned," Graham said. "How could we not know about this? How could these dollars be available and we not know about it? . . . We've not opined on the use of those dollars, and that's very problematic for us."

Baker said both agencies have been involved in the program since 2004. She said the agencies receive federal money -- distributed by the mayor's office under the federal No Child Left Behind law -- that is supposed to help low-performing charter schools raise student achievement.

Baker said that the money is managed by her agency and that the Board of Education's charter office submits invoices to receive its portion of the funds.

"We did everything under the standards under which we are expected to operate," she said. "We don't feel there's anything here that would entail an investigation of us."

Messages left on the cellphones of Belton and her attorney, Danny Onorato, were not returned yesterday.

School sources have said that investigators also are looking into possible connections between Belton and some of the contractors her office hired.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the council's education committee, said she expressed concern about the Board of Education's charter school office in March, when it sought to increase its budget by 7 percent, to $650,000. The council had doubled the budget the previous year after the office requested money to enlarge its staff, but no additional staff members were hired, Patterson said.

Staff writer Valerie Strauss and staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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