When Ronald Alexander appeared via video conference on the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” last month, he was described as “the most amazing man.” Alexander, 60, was the principal of Charles L. Spain Elementary-Middle School, a Detroit public school that became the recipient of a $500,000 donation facilitated by the show.
The episode, which aired in early February, played footage of the school’s crumbling roof and dilapidated gym. Virtually none of the school’s technology worked, DeGeneres told her audience, and the students were forced to take P.E. classes in the hallways.
Before a crowd of students and staff in the cafeteria, DeGeneres announced a slate of donations totaling half a million dollars from Lowe’s, the home improvement company, amid raucous cheers.
Then, the grand finale came in the form of Justin Bieber emerging from a box beside DeGeneres. The pop star announced that $1 of every ticket sold for an upcoming concert in the area would be given to Spain Elementary.
“Of all the people in the whole world, I am the happiest principal on Earth,” Alexander said into the camera with a wide grin. “I love you! I love you again! This is the best.”
His mood may have since changed, as Alexander was named on Tuesday as one of 12 current and former Detroit principals charged with taking bribes and kickbacks from a school supplies vendor and fabricating invoices from the city’s beleaguered public schools.
The alleged scheme began in 2002 and continued until January 2015.
“A case like this is a real punch in the gut for those who are trying to do the right thing,” Detroit’s U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said at a press conference. “Public corruption never comes at a good time.”
A statement from McQuade’s office accuses Norman Shy, the owner of school supplies vendor Allstate Sales, of conspiring with Clara Flowers, the assistant superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools’ Office of Specialized Student Services.
Shy and Flowers are also charged with tax evasion for failing to report income.
Flowers allegedly received $324,785 in kickbacks from Shy in return for using him as the district’s vendor. According to charging documents cited by the Detroit Free Press, these came in the form of cash, gift cards and payments to contractors who renovated Flowers’s house.
Flowers and Shy allegedly met regularly to discuss the favors that Flowers was owed, amounts which were carefully tabulated on a ledger that Shy maintained.
The arrangements with principals allegedly unfolded in a similar manner, but in return for kickbacks and bribes, the principals submitted fraudulent invoices — claiming costs for auditorium chairs, lined paper and supplemental teaching materials that were never delivered.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the financial compensation received by the principals ranged from a low of $4,000 to a high of $194,000. In all, the alleged payments from Shy to school officials totaled $908,518.
In return, Shy and his company allegedly received approximately $2.7 million from the public school system through payments for fraudulent invoices.
Alexander, the principal who appeared on “Ellen,” allegedly took $23,000 in kickbacks and bribes. The charges are not related to donations the school received from the show.
Just one lawyer for the officials has thus far offered comment.
Doraid Elder, who is representing Stanley Johnson, told the Detroit Free Press that the public should not rush to judgment.
“These are merely allegations,” Elder said. “I don’t want people to forget that he’s put over two decades of his heart and soul into giving kids the best education possible.”
The current principals charged in the scheme have been placed on unpaid leave, the Associated Press reported, and business with Shy and his companies has been suspended.
The conspiracy allegations add insult to injury for the Detroit public school system, which suffers from a debt exceeding $3 billion. The system’s financial troubles have only worsened under a series of state-appointed emergency managers over the last six years, prompting teachers to stage a “sickout” in January in protest of the poor conditions district-wide.
On the same day the bribery allegations were announced, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed into law $48.7 million in emergency funding for the ailing schools.
“The odorous smell of mold and mildew hits you like a brick wall when you step through the front doors at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit,” school counselor Lakia Wilson wrote on PBS Newshour’s education blog in January.
Wilson started working at the school 19 years ago, she said, when it was an institution “any city would be proud to have in its district.” Things have since changed:
Today, it’s the poster child for neglect and indifference to a quality teaching and learning environment for our 500 students. The gym is closed because half of the floor is buckled and the other half suffered so much rainwater damage from the dripping ceiling that it became covered with toxic black mold.
Exposed wires hang from missing ceiling tiles. Watermarks from leaks abound. Kids sit either in freezing classrooms with coats on or strip layers because of stifling heat.
Wilson lamented: “How can you teach or learn in conditions like these?”
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