D.C. PUBLIC charter school officials say that, as soon as they learned about alleged fiscal irregularities at the city’s oldest charter school, they took swift action. That’s true. But two issues remain: why the alleged abuses were not discovered sooner, and whether sufficient protections are in place to ensure that public funds are spent in the best interest of students.
Suspicions by the D.C. Public Charter School Board about improper contracts at the Options Public Charter School resulted in a lawsuit by D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan , seeking a receiver for the Northeast school. The civil lawsuit, filed Tuesday in D.C. Superior Court, alleges that leaders of Options enriched themselves with at least $3 million in taxpayer funds intended to serve students. According to the suit, the school’s leaders created for-profit companies that entered into contracts with the school to deliver services at high prices.
Charter school officials launched an investigation on Aug. 19, bringing in an outside accountant to do a forensic audit, notifying the attorney general and now, six weeks later, seeking to revoke Options’ charter. Officials insisted that their actions were unrelated to Freedom of Information Act requests filed by The Post’s Emma Brown. But the fact that she was seeking information about Options and the for-profit companies in requests dated July 10 and Aug. 8 raises the obvious question of whether there were earlier warning signs that school board officials should have spotted.
The allegation that Jeremy L. Williams, former chief financial officer for the public charter school board who once served as interim executive director, assisted in the scheme is particularly troubling, since he was the official in charge of fiscal oversight. Mr. Williams’s attorney, Troy Poole, said he had no comment.
Public charter schools, which currently enroll 43 percent of public school students, play a vital role in the District. They provide important educational choices for parents and, while education quality varies, charter school students perform above the D.C. average. So it’s important that officials ensure that the public monies going to charter schools are well spent. It’s particularly galling that Options, a school that is supposed to serve troubled and at-risk teenagers, may have misused its funding.
The board, which by law reviews but does not approve contracts, has already moved to tighten its internal controls and toughen its conflict-of-interest policy. It’s encouraging that it has retained the outside accounting firm that audited Options to undertake a rigorous review of financial operations to determine if further changes are in order.