Published Online: April 2, 1997

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Controversy Dogs For-Profit School for Dropouts

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Detroit

Allegations of fraud over enrollment figures are the latest flare-up in the ongoing dispute over a for-profit school for dropouts opened by a suburban school district in the heart of Detroit.

City school officials lost the lawsuit they filed seeking to close the privately run Baron's Academy, which the 4,000-student Romulus district just west of here opened last fall. ("For-Profit School for Dropouts Sparks Turf Battle in Detroit, " Oct. 9, 1996.)

Former teachers at the academy now charge that the Romulus district and its contractor inflated the school's 2,180-student enrollment to get $5,600 in per-pupil state aid.

And state lawmakers have jumped on the bandwagon, debating whether districts should be free to open schools outside their boundaries. At least one lawmaker has promised to sponsor a bill that would bar such moves.

"Every district in the state is watching this case," said Jerome Watson, a lawyer for the Detroit schools. "If what they did is authorized, then any district can go after any other district's students."

Officials of the Romulus system, which keeps about $1,000 per Baron's Academy student, admit that record-keeping mistakes were made. But Superintendent Bill Bedell blames any problems on bookkeeping errors, not fraud. He says his system is being harassed for political reasons.

Gov. John Engler, a Republican, backs the Romulus foray into Detroit, saying such moves will promote more competitive schools. His longtime friend, state schools chief Arthur E. Ellis, agrees.

"I'm sure you could pick some situations where I would be concerned about it, but this is not one," Mr. Ellis said last week.

Trouble Brewing

That endorsement will not quell skeptics, however.

The Michigan House judiciary committee, which is chaired by Rep. Ted Wallace of Detroit, held a hearing on the school last month. Afterward, Mr. Wallace, a Democrat, asked the state attorney general to investigate whether there was any fraud involved in the school's enrollment data.

Mr. Wallace cited recent affidavits from four teachers laid off by the school.

For example, Ethlyn Vogler, a former English teacher, said that school administrators "pressured the teachers to mark students as being present who simply were not there."

Peter Bakama, one of the business partners operating the school under the Romulus district's contract with Detroit-based Baron Schools Inc., suggested that Ms. Vogler was upset over being laid off last December.

"Did we make mistakes? Yes," Mr. Bakama said. "But there was no fraud. No intent."

The school, which links four areas of trade instruction with the curriculum needed for a high school diploma, has raised eyebrows for paying students $5 daily stipends for meal and transportation costs. On Feb. 14, one of two days used to count students to determine state funding, teenagers flooded the school to get $100 vouchers, though few continued to attend.

"The whole thing is really shady. You get $100, but you had to be there on the count day," said Elaine Kuester, who was in charge of the English department before taking a new job in February.

But Mr. Bakama defends the school's average daily attendance, between 200 and 300 students, saying that the low figure should be no surprise given the troubled backgrounds of the students.

New Problems

But the school's woes multiplied last month when an audit by the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency reported that all of the school's 2,180 students were improperly counted and do not qualify for state aid.

According to Arthur M. Carter, the deputy superintendent of the Detroit schools, the audit proves that Romulus did little better than the city's schools at reaching dropouts: "They failed miserably based on the audit."

Mr. Bedell, the Romulus superintendent, has appealed the audit. And Mr. Ellis, the state chief, questioned the audit's findings. "When someone says zero, they have no more credibility than the other that says 2,000," he said.

The attorney general's office does not plan to take any action until the state education department reviews the audit.

Maverick Move

To understand the controversy, it helps to know a little about Mr. Bedell, who, in 18 years at the helm of Romulus schools, has earned the reputation of a public-policy maverick.

That was how he approached the 1995 school choice law that let students attend any school within their intermediate district. Such districts roughly follow county borders. Mr. Bedell found nothing in the law to stop him from making a profit for his schools by bringing his district to Detroit; both are in Wayne County.

"We were not going to save Detroit, but we could help our kids by making money on it," he said.

Detroit school officials disagreed with the Romulus interpretation, and asked a state court to close Baron's Academy last fall.

"It's an excursion into urban education by a suburban school district for all the wrong reasons--to make money," Mr. Carter, the deputy Detroit superintendent, said.

A judge ruled in Romulus' favor in January. The Detroit schools are appealing the decision.

Student Perspective

For all the rhetoric and legal challenges, little public attention has been paid to the students who are taking classes in the renovated six-story former Detroit Business Institute building.

Mr. Bakama said those students are defying huge odds by returning to school after falling through the cracks. And about 70 could graduate with high school diplomas and trade certificates in June, he said.

D'Ariagnian Jones, 19, dropped out of the Detroit schools three years ago but now attends Baron's Academy. "I didn't think I was going to be back in school," he said.

But the low attendance at the school is hard to overlook. Romulus has received $3.5 million in state aid this year and continues to get paid.

On a recent day, Cynthia Laine's well-appointed computer-training class had only two students, though 72 were enrolled. Just 11 have turned in work this semester.

Taking a break in the class, 19-year-old Kenisha Colman said the school gave her a new start after she dropped out of school two years ago. "I ain't no dropout because I came back," she said. "There isn't anything wrong with this school. It's my last chance."

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