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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.