Clarification to This Article
Nona Richardson, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said staff members believe that Chairman Thomas A. Nida voted against an enrollment increase for William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts on Feb. 21, 2006. Mark Lerner, who is chairman of the Doar school's board and attended the 2006 meeting, said Nida voted against the increase. The board's official minutes of that meeting do not reflect that vote but instead show that Nida joined in a unanimous approval of the increase, as The Post reported in a Dec. 14 Page One article and an accompanying graphic. Richardson said a memo asserting that the minutes are incorrect would be added to the charter board's file. Nida did not respond to requests from The Post for comment on his vote.

Public Role, Private Gain

Thomas A. Nida, bank executive and D.C. charter school board chairman, with fellow board member Dora Marcus.
Thomas A. Nida, bank executive and D.C. charter school board chairman, with fellow board member Dora Marcus. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By David S. Fallis and April Witt
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 14, 2008

When a band of Brookland neighbors packed a public meeting to try to stop one of the District's public charter schools from moving to their quiet cul-de-sac, their pleas seemed to receive a warm reception.

Thomas A. Nida, chairman of the board that supervises one of the nation's largest charter school systems, encouraged testimony from the group on that summer evening in 2007. "And anything else you've got to say, put it in writing and we'll take it," Nida said, noting that the charter board would not decide on the move for a month. "That way we will give everybody a chance to express their views."

What Nida failed to mention was his own stake in the matter. As a senior vice president at United Bank, he had been working on a $7 million loan to the Elsie Whitlow Stokes charter school to finance the very relocation that neighbors opposed.

By the time the D.C. Public Charter School Board approved the move in August 2007 -- with Nida recusing himself from the vote -- the loan deal was done. Nida's employer would receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest payments for years to come.

Homeowners on the losing end of that dispute had encountered one of the hidden financial conflicts of interest in the city's burgeoning charter school movement. Key members of the public bodies that regulate and fund the schools have taken part in official decisions that stood to benefit themselves, their colleagues, employers and companies with whom they have business ties, The Washington Post has found.

The Post's review found conflicts of interest involving almost $200 million worth of business deals, typically real estate transactions, at more than a third of the District's 60 charter schools. The conflicts are documented in thousands of pages of internal charter board documents, land records, tax returns, audits and other records reviewed by The Post.

In the 12 years since Congress authorized charter schools in the District to spur competition and improve urban education, charters have burgeoned into an independent and parallel public school system. They are private, nonprofit businesses operating under a public "charter" and largely funded by taxpayer dollars. D.C. students can attend for free. An independent seven-member charter board now oversees about 26,000 students, more than one-third of the city's public school population.

Nida, who joined the board in 2003, is the official with the most extensive financial links to schools he regulates. Since he went to work for United Bank, it has lent more than $55 million to charter schools, their developers or their landlords, records and interviews show. As a public official, Nida has voted repeatedly to increase student enrollment -- and thus taxpayer funding -- for charter schools that borrow money from his bank, records show.

Nida recused himself from a handful of votes affecting charter schools or developers doing business with his bank but participated in dozens of other votes and actions involving bank customers, records show.

Before he was on the board, Nida wrote a banking industry primer on how to profit from charters by using their flow of public funding as loan collateral. According to a charter developer's Web site, Nida told bankers: "After 25 deals, I've had no losses or even late payments. The loans give me my largest margins and they are the most profitable piece of my portfolio."

In an interview, Nida said that all of his official actions have been appropriate and that he has taken steps to avoid potential conflicts of interest. He said he considers it a key part of his job to make sure charter schools have "adequate and affordable" buildings.

"My role as the board chair is always to do what is best and in the interest of the students and the school," he said. "Any consideration of the bank, good or bad, is not a factor. If I think it could be, then I will speak up and recuse myself."

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company