16/06/2024

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Charter school spent money on helicopter tour, clothes and first-class travel, records show

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Charter school spent money on helicopter tour, clothes and first-class travel, records show

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV/Gray News) – Top officials at a North Carolina charter school spent taxpayer funds on first class travel, tourist excursions, clothes and other items, according to a new report.

WBTV filed a public records request when it began investigating Corvian Community School in Charlotte after the school’s board first suspended and then fired its founder and executive director, Stacey Haskell, citing a misuse of funds in their termination letter.

The charges and allegations raise questions about how charter schools—schools funded by tax dollars but operated by private organizations—are regulated and who, if anyone, is overseeing their operations.

The expenses also come to light in an environment where the state recently changed how it oversees charter schools, as WBTV previously reported.

In the case at Corvian Community School, an attorney for Haskell denied any wrongdoing and claimed the board knew about the spending for years and did nothing; —an accusation the board disputes.

Every local, state, and federal agency that, in theory, has some level of oversight over either charter schools or the public funds they use responded to this reporting with explanations about why that oversight was limited or didn’t answer questions at all.

Clothes, car service and sightseeing

Haskell founded Corvian Community School in 2010 and led the organization as its executive director until she was ousted in late 2023. The termination letter issued by the school board at the time of her firing said an internal investigation revealed misuse of funds and other issues.

WBTV obtained Haskell’s credit card statements through a public records request. The statements detail charges over a two-year period, all paid for with either state or federal funds: clothing at J Crew, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

Luxury travel included a $690 helicopter sightseeing flight in 2019; more than $6,000 for first-class airfare for Haskell and occasionally other senior staff, and at least $2,500 in private executive car services to get from the airport to conferences.

Records show Corvian paid for a group of school administrators to spend $1,200 last year for a private van on a tour of Pikes Peak in Colorado. Like the helicopter sightseeing trip, that tour happened while the group was in town on a taxpayer-funded trip to attend a conference.

A source with direct knowledge of the trip last year—who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal—said administrators skipped the conference programming to go on the private tour of Pikes Peak.

Haskell’s attorney, John Gresham, defended the private Pikes Peak tour and the helicopter flight as teambuilding activities.

“It was something for the staff, for the senior staff, to have some comradery and do something that they felt was fun,” Gresham said.

But after Haskell was fired, school officials filed a police report with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police accusing Haskell of embezzlement. Among the items listed as money Haskell improperly used were the funds that paid for the helicopter trip.

CMPD has since closed that case, saying it was their understanding federal investigators with the U.S. Department of Education are now looking into it. Gresham, however, has not been able to reach any federal investigators.

School board oversight

Gresham said each of the charges—for clothes, sightseeing trips and chauffeured vehicles—was reported to the school’s board in monthly budget reports. Haskell also shared screenshots of openly posting about the sightseeing tours several times on her Facebook page, where she was friends with multiple board members and senior staff.

An attorney for the board said the school would “certainly dispute” the claim that the board was aware of these charges.

“If placed under oath, I think it would be interesting for the board to say, ‘Oh, we had no knowledge of this,’” Gresham said.

Board chair Ed Franklin and vice chair Jesh Humphrey didn’t respond to multiple emailed questions from WBTV. An attorney speaking on their behalf, however, said they “certainly dispute” Gresham’s allegations about whether the board knew about her spending.

The list of questions the board received and declined to answer included questions about general oversight of how administrators were spending school funds.

Nor did representatives for the school board answer questions seeking to explain their own expenses, ones that Gresham pointed out.

Credit card receipts from Haskell and the school’s executive assistant, Amanda Meister, show $2,126 spent at the Safe Harbor Peninsula Yacht Club and $3,692 at BLT Steak in Charlotte.

“My client has no comment at this time and is not going to be engaging with reporters,” an attorney hired by the school told WBTV in an email.

State oversight

N.C. State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who sits on the N.C. State Board of Education, took issue with the expenses that were uncovered.

“As the State Treasurer of North Carolina…I’ve never taken a helicopter ride, I’ve never flown first class,” Folwell said.

Charter schools are required by law to submit annual audit reports to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

A spokeswoman for NCDPI said the state’s oversight only extends to those reports and does not involve their own review of individual financial records.

“Charter school boards, working through their administrative staffs, are responsible for the preparation and fair presentation of financial statements in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles,” NCDPI Communications Director Blair Rhodes said in an email.

Haskell’s expenses did not raise any red flags in the audits.

In fact, two years ago, the school got its charter renewed for 10 years, a renewal term reserved only for the schools with the healthiest financial and academic history over the past 3-year period.

Asked how the expenses wouldn’t have raised a red flag in the annual audits, Folwell responded:

“Somebody wasn’t doing their job.”

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