AUDITORS SAY TURKISH GULEN CHARTERS MISSPENT FEDERAL DOLLARS
ACTION STEP: We as Texas voters must let our elected Texas Legislators know that we expect them to pass charter school safeguards in the Jan. 2013 session. Two sets of reasonable charter school safeguards are posted at the following link (10.4.11) — http://libertylinked.com/posts/8535/safeguards-badly-needed-for/View.aspx
Please take the time to voice your strong request to your Texas legislators that we need charter school safeguards. – Donna Garner
“Auditors say funds misspent for Harmony campuses”
By Lindsay Kastner
Updated 12:23 a.m., Tuesday, July 31, 2012
A months-long state audit of the Cosmos Foundation — which operates the Harmony network of charter schools — found $186,197 in misspent federal grant money intended to improve education for students with disabilities or those from low-income families.
Texas Education Agency auditors determined as “unallowable” 34 percent of expenses they examined, which is 16.1 percent of the total expenses associated with the grants, according to the report.
Cosmos could be required to pay back some or all of the money in question, TEA spokeswoman Suzanne Marchman said.
The audit, dated July 17 and released to the San Antonio Express-News on Monday in response to a public information request, was launched in October 2010. Marchman said she did not know what prompted the review.
Harmony Public Schools Superintendent Soner Tarim issued a statement that said the network had “implemented a range of accountability and transparency improvements to address the original issues highlighted by the TEA” while the audit was being conducted.
“We believe we have addressed those concerns effectively, and we are pleased that the TEA considers this audit closed,” the statement said.
He did not return a call seeking comment.
The swiftly growing charter network serves more students than any other such network in Texas, and last year, two Harmony schools were dubbed “miracle high schools” byNewsweek magazine.
Based on state test scores, Harmony schools are some of the highest rated in the state. Its two San Antonio campuses were rated “academically acceptable” in 2011, the most recent year available.
But the state’s audit is not the only time the schools have come under scrutiny.
Founded by Turkish immigrants, the schools have become a lightning rod for criticism over murky ties to religious leader Fethullah Gulen, procurement practices that often favor other Turkish-run businesses with lucrative contracts, and the hiring of large numbers of foreign — often Turkish — employees on H1-B visas.
Supporters have condemned the criticism as little more than thinly-veiled xenophobia. But this year, the Republican Party of Texas included in its platform a statement about “foreign culture charter schools,” including a demand for U.S. citizenship of board trustees.
Last year, such concerns nearly caused a second special legislative session, until lawmakers agreed to launch a House investigation of all Texas charter schools.
“It’s still an ongoing investigation for us. We haven’t closed the books,” said Rep. Chuck Hopson, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee.
“It started out originally we were looking at some of the Turkish charter schools, and it’s evolved from there,” he said.
The TEA audit did not evaluate Harmony’s procurement practices or reliance on foreign workers, sticking instead to the organization’s use of federal dollars awarded for two grant programs: Title I, Part A, for high-poverty schools, and IDEA-B, for students with disabilities.
In one instance, Title I money was spent at a noneligible campus. In another, the grant money was improperly used to cover payroll costs.
In response to a preliminary version of the audit released to Cosmos last year, the organization’s attorney, Joseph Hoffer of San Antonio, issued a letter disagreeing with many of the state’s findings.
“While Cosmos respectfully disagrees with the report’s determination that it ‘misused’ funds, Cosmos recognizes that the unparalleled success of its educational programs has fostered unprecedented growth and with it a need for constant introspection, self-evaluation and system improvements,” Hoffer wrote.
Comments from Peyton Walcott, 7.31.12
Where does this leave us? Leading Texas legislators such as House Public Ed chair Rob Eissler, Texas Senator Dan Patrick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst all declined many opportunities during the 2011 Lege to introduce more accountability into Texas’ charter school oversight. I know because I asked, along with Texas Eagle Forum vice president MerryLynn Gerstenschlager. We asked many times, at many hearings — all on our own dime and time.
Something to think about: During the 2011 Lege, Eissler, Patrick and Dewhurst gave our Turkish charter operator friends — the same folks who have just been found by TEA to have misspent $186K — access to almost $2 billion this next biennium in the Permanent School Fund as a guarantee for their new school construction.
By copy to Harmony superintendent Soner Tarim and his PR gal Karen Hughes, here’s hoping you will be encouraged by this experience to join fellow Texas public school superintendents and put Harmony’s check register online; the majority of Texas ISD dollars are already online, but no charter dollars that I know of. Openness and transparency, that’s the American way.