The Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, one of the first charter schools in the city and the state of Tennessee, will officially close at the end of the school year.
The newly formed Tennessee Public School Charter Commission voted unanimously at its Friday meeting to reject MAHS’ appeal, affirming the Memphis-Shelby County school board’s decision to revoke its charter in January after years of financial malfeasance, leading to the indictment of three former school leaders charged with stealing nearly $400,000 from the school.
The vote aligned with the recommendations of Tess Stovall, executive director of the commission, who wrote that Memphis-Shelby County Schools was within its rights to shut the charter down, given “such egregious acts of financial mismanagement and violations of the charter agreement.”
Stovall said the decision to close a school is not one that should be made lightly, but that a school that violates state law and “betrays the public trust” cannot remain open.
“An authorized charter school is entrusted with significant fiduciary responsibility,” Stovall told commissioners on Friday. “It has to protect those funds and has to ensure that those funds are used in the best interest of students and the community.”
The commission’s Friday decision comes in spite of the many impassioned pleas from parents, students, and school officials. The closure will displace the around 750 students MAHS serves across its middle and high school campuses in North Memphis.
Although several commissioners expressed sympathy for the families and teachers impacted by MAHS’ closure, all of them support the closure. They pledged to work closely with district leaders to ensure the affected students find a high-quality school to attend. A Memphis-Shelby County Schools closure report found that most MAHS students will be sent to schools with a lower school performance rating, a scale that weighs academics, growth, college and career readiness, and school climate.
“It does sadden me that the actions of a few have impacted these children,” said Commissioner Terrence Patterson, who also serves as president and CEO of the Memphis Education Fund. “But we also have to hold the adults accountable and because of these egregious actions, and despite a well-intentioned new governing board, we can’t take back these actions and the recommendation is in alignment with state record and law.”
In MAHS’ appeal to the Commission, officials recognized the gravity of unlawful use of public school funds meant to improve education for children, but argued that many organizations “fall victim to crimes” of this nature, especially when they’re committed by high-ranking employees who go to great lengths to conceal them.
A December report from the state’s Comptroller of Treasury Office found that Corey Johnson, MAHS’ former executive director, and fellow former administrators Robert Williams and Michael Jones allegedly used school money for trips to Las Vegas, a hot tub, seafood, NBA tickets, and auto repair, among other personal expenses, from 2015 to 2019.
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The MAHS governing board contends it only learned of the administrators’ questionable transactions when the comptroller launched its investigation in November 2019 and didn’t realize the full extent of their crimes. And in the years since, the board has enacted several new procedures and policies to improve their financial oversight of the schools.
“Closing these schools now, in 2022, after the governing board made sweeping changes beginning in 2019, and which are operating without any issues, and performing much better than available neighborhood schools, only compounds the damage already done by these former employees,” MAHS officials wrote in a statement presented to the commission Friday.
Memphis-Shelby County Schools disagreed with that characterization, saying the MAHS governing board’s inaction resulted in the misappropriation of funds totaling about $800,000. The district also noted the comptroller’s several findings of internal controls and compliance deficiencies within MAHS.
“Those funds could have and should have been used for student benefit,” Brittany Monda, assistant superintendent of charter schools, wrote in a statement. “The board did not have meaningful oversight of the school and failed to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management. No plan of action could correct or address the mismanagement of funds that spanned over four years prior that allowed MAHS employees to operate to the detriment of MAHS.”
Stovall sided with the district and called into question the MAHS governing board’s argument that it didn’t understand the full extent of former administrators’ crimes.
After independently reviewing MAHS’ audits from fiscal year 2015 through 2021, Stovall found that auditors began noting the comptroller’s investigation starting in fiscal year 2019. That, she said, “should have been a significant flag for the governing board that the Comptroller’s work was more than just ‘routine.’”
“While I believe that the new governing board is well-intentioned in its desire to provide a quality education to its students, I cannot find that the decision of the local board of education is contrary to (state law) based on a totality of evidence,” she wrote.
On Friday, Stovall joined commissioners in calling for Memphis-Shelby County Schools to ensure former MAHS students will be enrolled in high-quality schools.
“Those students are the most impacted in these decisions,” she said.
Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at firstname.lastname@example.org.