Charter School Denies Audit Findings, Turkish Connections

The Fulton Science Academy Middle School, a charter school in Alpharetta, is refuting allegations that it improperly spent taxpayer dollars and is connected to a Turkish Islamic movement.

Members of the charter school’s board challenged the accuracy of an audit released June 5 by the Fulton County Public Schools, which says the school used taxpayer dollars to bring in overseas workers, finance trips to Turkey and provide unchallenged contracts to employee-owned businesses, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The school has drawn fire from critics in the media and elsewhere for its alleged connections with international vendors, particularly those associated with Fethullah Gulen, an outspoken Turkish imam that preaches a moderate brand of Islam promoting cultural and educational exchanges.

The number of Mr. Gulen’s followers has multiplied dramatically in recent years, both in Turkey and abroad. More than 120 Gulen-influenced charter schools have popped up across the country in recent years, particularly in urban centers, according to The New York Times.

However, Angela Lassetter, the chief financial officer of Fulton Science Academy, denies any direct connection with Mr. Gulen, saying the school has never received any money from the imam and that it teaches a secular curriculum, regardless of the personal religious beliefs of some of its staff.

“We have no ties from Fethullah Gulen,” Ms. Lassetter told GlobalAtlanta. “He doesn’t act on any board, he doesn’t make decisions for the school. I don’t know how we keep getting maligned … as a Gulen school or tagged as a Gulen school because that would mean we were somehow part of a network through funding or ownership or otherwise and it doesn’t exist.”

In a press statement released June 6, the school’s board called into question the general accounting principles of the audit and the veracity of its findings, which were performed by the school district in conjunction with an independent auditor, Atlanta-based IAG Forensics.

The audit revealed several secondary connections to Gulen-financed organizations, as well as several other Turkish groups among hundreds of other non-related vendors.

Fulton schools and the state Board of Education denied a 10-year renewal of FSA’s charter last year. It was offered a three-year renewal, which it rejected.

While its continued charter status was still in question, the school applied for $18.9 million in construction bonds along with its sister elementary and high schools. The lender has since declared the school in default because it withheld information about the status of its charter.

Ms. Lassetter denied any wrongdoing on behalf of the school, saying Fulton Science Academy has not broken any laws, rules or guidelines and has been thoroughly examined by several other independent auditors in the past 10 years.

However, the audit alleges that the school entered business deals with former employees and board members, creating multiple apparent conflicts of interest, which the academy also disputes.

The school awarded more than $500,000 in contracts to the Grace Institute, an Alpharetta-based charter school association with multiple school leaders on its board, according to the audit report.

During the auditing process, the school held the auditors to strict time constraints, only meeting with them every third day, citing limited administrator availability to oversee the process, the audit reads.

FSA’s school board eventually ejected two IAG auditors from the school when they discovered the auditors were outside contractors hired by the district’s director of internal audits, James Yerich, citing legal reasons and student privacy concerns.

The audit was part of a larger scheme by the FCS to shut down the charter school in retribution for attracting the area’s more successful students, according to an email from Selma Aktas, the FSA’s secretary of the board.

The audit, she continued, was meant to discredit Fulton Science Academy in response for making the district look bad.

“We cannot fight with FCS. They are abusing their power to lie and manipulate the public,” Ms. Aktas said in an email to GlobalAtlanta. “We can’t fight with that. … They wanted to close this school and get these successful students back to their schools.”

Last year, the school was recognized as a “national blue ribbon school” by the U.S. Education Department, one of 10 schools in the state to receive the designation.

Though its charter applications were rejected, the 500-student middle school plans to continue to operate but as a private school.

The charters for its sister elementary and high schools are not up for renewal for another three years, according to Ms. Lassetter.

Fulton County intends to audit these schools as well.

To view a full copy of the audit, including a chart showing an alleged chain of vendor connections between FSA employees and Mr. Gulen, click here.

 

Photo curtesy of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.

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