Sunday, February 9, 2014
Charter school in trouble
There's something rotten at Merrick Academy Charter School, something besides the raw sewage that leaked into the basement in recent weeks.
The 500-student school was supposed to start 2014 in a new building, a former Catholic School, but that was delayed by several days, leaving parents to scramble for childcare.
Charter school boards are supposed to make all major financial and operational decisions. But several trustees say they never even saw, let alone inspected or voted on, the 10-year multi-million dollar lease.
NY1 obtained a copy of the lease and the only name on it is Gerald Karikari, board chairman at Merrick Academy since 2004. The lease began a full year before the school moved in, meaning for at least 12-months, it was renting two buildings. The lease terms suggest the public charter school is now responsible for major costly repairs to the church-owned building.
These are not the first management issues or allegations of impropriety involving Merrick Academy. Years ago, several founding board members, including state Sen. Malcolm Smith and Rep. Gregory Meeks, resigned amidst reports tying them to another questionable real estate deal involving the school.
At Merrick Academy Charter School much of the public money that's supposed to go towards educating students is actually going towards real estate.
Parents are angry.
"There's rules that should be followed, that wasn’t followed,” said parent Kenneth Samaroo.
Several members of the school's board of trustees agree, saying their chairman, Gerald Karikari, has been making decisions without consulting the rest of them, like signing a new multi-million dollar lease while the school was still paying rent on its old lease. In January, students moved to the new building and, as we've told you, there've been a lot of issues like no heat and a sewage back-up.
There's also been a lot of costs.
“The totals for construction were about half a million dollars to get everything done. In order to get out of the old site's lease, we had to do a buyout of $462,000. So with all of those figures adding up, including the rent that we paid when no one was in the building, it's roughly around $1.5 million,” said board member Michael Zampella.
And every dollar counts. Merrick gets $7.5 million in taxpayer money each year, the same amount per student as other city schools, but at Merrick much less makes it to the classroom.
Merrick was started by a for-profit company, Victory Education Partners. The state has since outlawed for-profit charter managers, but existing relationships were allowed to continue.
Merrick pays Victory at least $750,000 a year, but the areas where Victory says it helps the school, like staffing, academics and operations, have all been riddled with problems.
While there is no indication that SUNY plans to intervene any time soon, its own evaluators found the school in disarray as far back as 2011, writing, in part, "The absence of an effective leadership structure since February 2010, coupled with the decline in student achievement, reflects a failure of the board."
Years later, that's exactly what several board members say.
"As a board, we are responsible to ensure the safety and well-being of the students, and we failed," said Michael Zampella, a member of the school's board.