- Wanda Santos-Bray
- Students pay $300 to a "tuition-free" school that hasn't met state standards in six years.
The school had failed to pay the snow-removal company again. Buses couldn't climb the slippery hill, which left loads of students idling in the street. With nothing to do, a few teachers playfully threw snowballs at each other. "They were letting off a little steam," says former teacher Chris Kaletka. "It was no big deal."
To TIPS leaders, it was a very big deal. Three teachers were paddled as punishment.
Building administrator Henderson Deal swatted each teacher's butt with a thick wooden paddle, according to two witnesses. "I heard three cracks," says former math teacher Debra Aquaowo. "Then Mr. Deal walked into the hallway. I asked, 'Whatcha doin'?' He said he just paddled teachers for throwing snowballs. I was stunned."
The charter school has been the subject of a growing scandal since Scene published "Dream Killer" [July 27], uncovering wholesale chaos at the school, including abject failure to educate students and the unaccounted spending of millions in state money.
For six years, Cleveland's largest charter had been allowed to operate with almost no oversight from the Lucas County Educational Service Center, its sponsor, or the Ohio Department of Education. "We were unaware of the shape TIPS was in until we read your article," admits Joan Kuchcinski, a Lucas County board member.
On September 20, the center moved to shut TIPS down. But the school sued and won a restraining order, arguing that the center had not fully investigated the school or held hearings on its closure. On Friday, a judge will decide whether the lawsuit can continue.
In the meantime, news of additional problems seems to leak from the school daily. Much of it is downright weird.
Before Deal became a top administrator at TIPS, he had been forced to resign from Cleveland's Lincoln-West High in 1999. Female students complained that he offered them better grades in exchange for allowing him to photograph their feet. In one signed statement, a 17-year-old girl said that Deal gave her a C in return for photos with her sandals on.
Nonetheless, TIPS promoted Deal to lead a campus with hundreds of students.
School spokesman Akil Hameed refused comment.
Former teachers also accuse administrators of rigging grades. Science teacher Dan Drew says he failed a number of students last year. But when he checked the school's computer, he discovered that seven students' failing grades were mysteriously bumped to C's or D's.
The same thing happened to Kaletka and Aquaowo. "I was forced to change a student's grade from failing to passing in the middle of the year," Aquaowo says.
In fact, standards were so loose that one student from Jamaica, who suffered from severe learning disabilities, spent the entire year in high-school-level chemistry, algebra, and English classes, though he couldn't sign his own name. "His mother was promised he'd be put into all these special-ed programs, but it never happened," Kaletka says.
Meanwhile, the school's staggering financial problems continue. An audit released Tuesday by Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery shows that during the 2002-2003 school year, TIPS was $663,000 in debt. It owed $157,000 for withholding money from teachers' paychecks but failing to pay the State Teachers Retirement System. The school didn't keep any record of employee paychecks, and 7 of the school's 38 teachers didn't have teaching licenses.
TIPS also overstated its enrollment for the third year in a row, this time overcharging the state $283,000. "I could have written Mickey Mouse into the attendance books, and they never would have known or cared," says former French teacher Karen Matthews.
The audit highlights many possible conflicts of interest. TIPS paid Enterprise International almost half a million dollars in rent. It paid Oasis Development $380,000 for consulting services. Both companies are owned by TIPS founder Da'ud Abdul Malik Shabazz. TIPS also employed a number of people who are relatives of its governing board members. These financial problems give the Ohio Department of Education the right to close the school, says the audit.
Instead, the state allowed TIPS' annual budget to almost double to over $6 million, though it wasn't even paying its bills.
A snow-plow driver says he finally received the $50,000 he was owed after threatening to close the school by piling snow in front of its doors.
The Jan-Pro custodial company found TIPS operating without toilet paper, soap, or hot water in the middle of winter. Jan-Pro fixed the problems on its own dime, even as the school refused to pay the company tens of thousands of dollars it owed, according to an August 22 letter from Jan-Pro President Terrell Dillard.
And because the school failed to record which students were absent or sick, it again overstated its enrollment last year and was forced to repay the state.
To top it all off, TIPS missed its payroll for two months. The situation grew so tense that Aquaowo was given a police escort when she went to demand her pay. Two Bedford Heights officers escorted her to TIPS' administrative offices, then drove her to the bank to make sure the check didn't bounce.
By the end of last school year, the phones had been turned off and secretaries were fired. "We were surprised every day to come in and find the lights on," Kaletka says.
This year, the school is operating once more, and the phones are working again. Many wonder why.
"This is an outrage," says state Senator Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo). "If this school is allowed to continue to exist, I don't want to live in Ohio."