crimestoppers

Investigation into charter school CEO ends with an indictment

The founder of a moribund chain of Brooklyn charter schools embezzled taxpayer funds and did not pay taxes on his earnings, then falsified documents to try to cover up his crimes, according to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Schneiderman today announced that he was indicting Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the founding CEO of the Believe High Schools Network, on 11 felony charges including tax fraud, grand larceny, and tampering with evidence.

The indictment caps a lengthy investigation that was well underway when the state and cityciting massive mismanagement and financial improprieties, each moved to shut down the network this year. A major issue was the high management fees that Calderon-Melendez charged the network’s three schools. Last year, Williamsburg Charter High School  failed to make rent after a sharp enrollment decline. The year before, the school sent students to an industrial space when its own building was not ready.

The state is letting one school in the network, Believe Northside Charter School, remain open, but the city earlier this month rejected an appeal by the flagship school, Williamsburg Charter, after concluding that it was about $5 million in debt.

Calderon-Melendez took home nearly $1.5 million while that debt accrued, according to Schneiderman’s indictment, which spells out a pattern of brazen theft. Investigators found that Calderon-Melendez paid no taxes on those earnings and used the school’s credit card to finance a personal trip to Europe. And when they started scrutinizing the school’s records, Calderon-Melendez fabricated documents and evidence to “throw investigators off his trail,” Schneiderman said in a press release about the charges.

Calderon-Melendez was forced out of the Believe Network’s leadership in February, years into Schneiderman’s investigation and months after the city and state had told the schools to sever their relationship with him or lose their right to operate.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed, an arrangement that can create some opportunities for fraud that do not exist in district-managed schools. But charter schools that are mismanaged can be closed.

Schneiderman’s press release is below.

A.G. Schneiderman Secures Indictment Of Former Brooklyn Charter School Network Founder And CEO

Believe Network And Williamsburg Charter High School Leader Received Over $1.4 Million In Compensation And Never Paid Taxes To New York

After Taking Home Over $500K In 2009, Eddie Calderon-Melendez Charged European Vacation On School Credit Card

Schneiderman: Those Who Cheat Taxpayers And Abuse The Public Trust Will Be Prosecuted To Fullest Extent Of The Law

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced his office has secured an 11-count indictment of Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the founder and former CEO of the beleaguered Williamsburg Charter High School and Believe High Schools Network, a charter management organization. According to the Attorney General’s indictment, Calderon-Melendez received over $1.4 million in compensation from 2005 to 2010, yet he never filed a tax return and failed to pay over $70,000 in taxes.

Nearly all of Calderon-Melendez’s compensation during that period came, directly or indirectly, from taxpayer-funded charter schools. Mr. Calderon-Melendez then attempted to cover up his tax crimes by creating and submitting false New York tax returns to the Office of the Attorney General.

“While earning a six-figure salary funded largely by taxpayer dollars, the defendant robbed the state of New York of much-needed revenue when he failed to pay his taxes for six years in a row. He then compounded his crime by creating false evidence to throw investigators off his trail,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “The charges announced today send a strong message that tax cheats and those who tamper with investigations will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

The indictment, secured in Kings County Supreme Court, charged Melendez with 11 felony counts: two counts of Repeated Failure to File Personal Income and Earnings Taxes; two counts of Criminal Tax Fraud in the Third Degree; one count of Criminal Tax Fraud in the Fourth Degree; four counts of Tampering with Physical Evidence; one count of Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree; and one count of Falsifying Business Records in the First Degree.

According to the indictment, at the end of 2009—a year in which he took home over $500,000—Melendez charged over $1,800 on the Williamsburg Charter High School’s credit card, to pay for expenses as part of a personal trip he took to Europe. In an effort to conceal this theft, Melendez then made false entries in the business records of the Charter High School.

Commissioner of Taxation and Finance Thomas H. Mattox, said, “Earlier this week, the Tax Department described its statewide efforts regarding personal income tax violations. I commend Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and his staff for today’s action, which underscores that non-compliance with income tax obligations will be an enforcement priority for New York State.”

The charges are merely accusations and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

This investigation was handled by Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Suplina and Senior Counsel Emily Bradford, under the supervision of Taxpayer Protection Bureau Chief Randall Fox and Executive Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice Nancy Hoppock.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.