School’s Troubles Take Fordham by Surprise

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W.E.B. DuBois Academy has gotten plenty of accolades.

It was labeled a “School of Promise” by the Ohio Department of Education. The governor highlighted the school during a visit last year. It even earned a plug in the U.S. Senate during National Charter Schools Week in 2005.

And then there was the front-page story in The Cincinnati Enquirer in July 2005 featuring the school’s founder and leader, Wilson H. Willard, and describing his plans to expand that fall. Mr. Willard was described as a “role model for charter schools” by Terry Ryan, the vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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Now, Mr. Willard and his schools, which serve mainly low-income families, have come under a cloud. In October of this year, he was indicted by the state on charges of stealing money from school coffers and falsifying enrollment records. He left the school before the start of this academic year.

Last month, the Washington-based foundation placed the academy and its two new sister schools, which share space and staff, on probation for multiple violations of their charter contracts. Fordham in 2005 became the schools’ sponsor, as charter authorizers are called in Ohio.

“When we inherited the school, it had been operating for five years,” Mr. Ryan said of DuBois. “We went in and did background checks, kicked the tires, visited the school.”

He added, “I swear to God, we dug and looked as hard as you possibly can, but it’s been humbling.”

DuBois Academy has been the subject of a special investigation by the state auditor’s office over the past year. Last spring, the school announced major cutbacks in its budget and staff to stay open. About 80 percent of the staff members are new this school year.

“I feel pretty good about our conscientiousness in this matter, and more sympathetic than I had been before from a sponsor’s standpoint of not always knowing what’s going on inside a school,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Foundation.

‘Extensive Compliance Problems’

In a Nov. 1 letter to the schools, Fordham said a review this fall found “scant evidence of a coherent education program” and noted “extensive compliance problems and fiscal-management issues.”

If the schools fail to take a series of steps spelled out by Fordham, they could face closure.

In a detailed reply, Edward Burdell, the board president for the three schools, pledged to meet all of the demands.

“We look forward to working collaboratively with you as we move forward and complete a successful year,” he wrote Nov. 12.

Mr. Wilson, the schools’ founder, has not yet entered a plea, according to the prosecutor’s office in Cincinnati. He and his lawyer did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Todd Haynes, who heads the state education department’s charter school office, said he’s generally satisfied with how the Fordham Foundation has handled the matter as the schools’ sponsor.

“Fordham is taking that responsibility very seriously,” he said.

Vol. 26, Issue 16, Page 29

Published in Print: December 20, 2006, as School’s Troubles Take Fordham by Surprise
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