VLT Academy may close after appeals court ruling

Charter school called 'worst' in Hamilton County

CINCINNATI – A Cincinnati charter school threatened by a lack of funding may close after all.

Last week, a judge ordered the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to sponsor VLT Academy next year – and to hand over $300,000 in taxpayer money to the school.

But Monday, an appeals court put a stay on the ruling -- meaning for now, ODE will not have to sponsor the 600-student charter school or pay the $300,000.

ODE Spokesperson John Charlton said ODE filed for the stay because it did not want to enter into a partnership with VLT Academy.

"The previous sponsor dropped its sponsorship because of poor academic performance and fiscal mismanagement," Charlton said. “It should not come as a surprise to (students and families) that the school may not open for the 2014-2015 school year.”

ODE has not yet been told when the next hearing will be, Charlton said. But Monday's decision means the charter school is again without a sponsor.

In May, VLT Academy’s sponsor, Educational Resource Consultants of Ohio (ERC), pulled its contract due to poor performance. The decision meant the school would shut down and leave hundreds of students without a place to learn unless it found another sponsor.

In the past, ODE has called VLT Academy "a demonstrable academic failure" that did not meet 97 percent of state standards. The state also called it "one of the worst schools in Hamilton County."

VLT Academy on Sycamore Street, one of Cincinnati’s largest charter schools, was the target of an October 2012 I-Team investigation revealing the taxpayer-funded school was run like a family business. 

A state audit showed the school paid its superintendent Valerie E. Lee, her family and her husband's company hundreds of thousand of tax dollars per year.

The I-Team revealed VLT Academy always picked the highest bidding company for one of its largest contracts. That company is owned by Clyde Lee, Valerie's husband.

According to the audit released by the Ohio Auditor of State , CEED Janitorial Services was paid $348,900 in 2011 to clean VLT Academy. Clyde owns CEED, and is also on the school's payroll as a project manager making a $65,000 annual salary.

RELATED:
Investigation Part 1: Cincinnati school a family business
Part 2: School provision allowed officials and family to profit from tax money

Another audit cited the school for selecting Clyde's company without seeking competitive bids. VLT sought bids the next year, but once again selected Clyde's company even though he submitted the highest bid by far.

In VLT's official response to auditors, it said, "Mr. Lee will no longer be employed by the Academy." But the response also explained a way Clyde could keep his job and the money that comes with it.

"The Academy is revising its job description for the janitorial contract to include the responsibilities of Project Manager. Bids will be solicited and awarded for Janitorial Services/Project Manager in accordance with VLT Guidelines. CEED has an opportunity, like other vendors, to bid on the Janitorial Service/Project Manager contract," VLT Academy reported to the state.

In Ohio, community schools like VLT Academy are funded entirely by tax dollars.

Valerie's daughter, Echole Harris, is also employed by the school. The I-Team first uncovered contracts showing she signed 10 of Harris' 13 employment contracts.

The state audit showed Harris' annual salary was $92,049 for multiple job titles. VLT's response came with an admission that Harris reported directly to her mother.

The school told auditors, "Harris will no longer be employed as an administrator under the supervision of the Superintendent...the Assistant CFO/EMIS/SOES Coordinator will report to the Treasurer."

VLT Academy offered no further comment on the matter when contacted by the I-Team.

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