Michael Short/California Watch St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church in West Oakland
Oakland school board members are calling for the district to investigate whether a private school accused of abuse is inflating enrollment numbers to get more than its share of taxpayer funding.
The board members were responding to a California Watch investigation into a West Oakland K-12 school run by St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church, which sends its students to ask for money at BART stations. Oakland Unified School District allocated $50,000 in federal funds this year based on the school's claim that it had 195 students, including 61 low-income children. Former students and government inspections, however, indicate the actual number is fewer than 30.
Most of the money is distributed in contracts, approved by the school board, to church leaders such as Robert Lacy Jr., who several former students said physically abused the children there.
Lacy Jr. has said he has no history of hitting children.
Board member Noel Gallo said the district must take action.
"Not only is it a money issue, but it’s really about children," Gallo said. "The minute someone tells me something is questionable or not right, then I'm just as responsible as the person doing it."
Gallo said the money to St. Andrew should be shut off if the district confirms problems at the school.
"We do provide approval for the use of those public funds. Even though our staff are saying we’re just a pass-through, we’re still liable and responsible," he said.
Board member David Kakishiba also said the district should withhold funding if it finds the enrollment numbers were falsified.
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"Clearly if there’s fraudulent activity going on, we need to put a stop to it," he said. "There's some basic due diligence that I believe any school district is responsible for doing when we’re transferring funds."
Board members are expecting Superintendent Tony Smith to report back to them on the issue at their next meeting on Wednesday.
District spokesman Troy Flint said there isn't currently a formal investigation and that the board would have to vote on whether the district should take action.
"We’re attentive to the issue, and right now things are just in the discussion phase," he said.
Flint said the district did not know about the accusations of abuse of children at the school – and that those allegations make the issue more urgent.
“We take those with the utmost seriousness,” he said. “And that’s our primary concern at the moment.”
Kelly Corbitt, who pulled her 12-year-old daughter out of St. Andrew in February, called for even stronger measures.
"They should shut that school down and make them pay back all the money," she said. "Because there’s no education being taught there at all. It’s all a fraud."
Lacy Jr., who earlier defended himself and the school against what he called hearsay, said his attorney advised him not to comment further.
Board Vice President Jumoke Hinton Hodge wrote by e-mail that the California Watch report "gives us pause, of course, on any further support of the school."
Hinton Hodge, whose district includes West Oakland, wrote that she was saddened that parents and students "might not have gotten what they needed from West Oakland (public) schools that are steadily improving. I hope that families will reconsider coming back to West Oakland schools."
Gallo and Kakishiba said they want to review the district's disbursement of federal funds in general.
This school year, Oakland Unified allocated $784,000 in federal Title II money to 29 private schools in Oakland, based on the schools' total enrollment, according to district records. The money is supposed to provide teacher training, and in St. Andrew's case goes to Carrie Banks, who married the church's pastor and teaches kindergarten through third grade.
The district also allocated $441,000 in Title I funds to 16 private schools, based on the number of eligible low-income students at the schools. That money funds additional instruction for struggling students. The school board approved a $7,400 contract in January for Lacy Jr. to provide the tutoring at $40 per hour. In April, district staff approved an additional $8,000 contract for Lacy Jr. that will go to the school board for final approval soon, said William Nownes, who administers the funding for Oakland Unified.
The school board typically signs off on a long list of these contracts as part of its consent agenda, which allows approval of routine items, bunched together, without discussion.
Gallo said district staff should at least spot check a sampling of the schools receiving money to verify enrollment figures and the quality of instruction.
"We take it for granted that what we’re voting for is a good thing, and I think we need to pay greater attention to exactly what we're supporting," Gallo said.