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.

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.

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.