OAKLAND, Calif. – Those who don’t like Ben Chavis call him a money-grubbing monster and a politically incorrect egomaniac.
Others think Chavis is the best thing to ever happen to Oakland school children.
Whatever people think of him, there’s one thing nobody denies: Chavis has produced some of the most impressive academic results ever accomplished with economically disadvantaged students.
But now the successful charter schools he helped establish may be closed for reasons unclear to many observers. Chavis has been accused of improperly making money through the schools, but that should only be his problem.
Why do the students have to lose their excellent schools over it?
Chavis, a Lumbee Indian and former school superintendent, took over Oakland Unified School District’s chronically failing American Indian Public Charter School (AIPCS) in 2000, and quickly transformed the institution into one of the premier schools in the nation.
He also helped established two other schools that joined AIPCS in forming the American Indian Model Schools charter network.
But he became a target for criticism by public school proponents who believe the union model is the only model for education. AIPCS, like most charter schools, employs a non-union teaching staff.
An extraordinary audit of his school, spawned by an anonymous “whistleblower,” allegedly revealed that Chavis improperly made nearly $4 million through various business arrangements with the charter network.
But instead of focusing on Chavis’ alleged criminal activity, Oakland school officials decided to revoke the charters of the three schools that blossomed under his management, using allegations of “financial improprieties” as an excuse.
Chavis is convinced the scandal is about more than the money he freely admits he made from the schools.
It’s about the increasing amount of state revenue that Oakland schools lose to the American Indian charter schools every year, he said. It’s about the education establishment’s determination to maintain control of the K-12 system.
And more than anything, it’s about the embarrassing reality that Oakland students can achieve at a high level when bureaucracy, political correctness and teachers unions are erased from the equation.
“It’s all politics,” Chavis told EAGnews. “We took 1,200 students from (Oakland Public Schools). The bottom line is (the American Indian schools are) taking $20 million a year (in state per-pupil funding) from them.”
AIPCS was a nearly shuttered school of 34 mostly Native American students in 2000. Chavis helped expand that into the fast-growing, three-school charter system (AIMS) serving hundreds of students from all types of ethnicities, with jaw-dropping results.
Nearly every AIMS student comes from a low-income family, yet by 2007 AIPCS became the first school in Oakland ever honored with the prestigious National Blue Ribbon Award for academic excellence.
Chavis helped to establish American Indian Public High School the same year, and in 2009 the first class of students graduated. One-hundred percent of graduates went on to four-year colleges, some attending prestigious schools like Cornell, UC Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 2010, AIPCS became the highest performing middle school in the state when eighth-graders registered scores of 100 percent on the English and math sections of state tests, as well as nearly perfect marks in science and history.
Last year 100 percent of AIMS 11th graders scored “proficient/advanced” in math on the California Standards Test, compared to only 39 percent of Oakland Unified School District students.
This year the Washington Post rated the American Indian Public High School the top achieving high school in the nation.
Much of the success is reportedly due to Chavis’ strict approach to academics and his fierce belief in accountability and competition.
Students are expected to be at school and on time, always. They attend class 195 days per year, including holidays, and are expected to supplement their studies with academically rigorous summer school programs.
A “C-“ is a failing grade in AIMS schools, and students are held back if they don’t meet expectations.
AIMS schools are virtually void of violence or behavior problems because current students train incoming classmates about expectations. Those who act up face consequences like detention, Saturday school, public embarrassment, cleaning duty or other punishments.
Students and staff receive financial rewards for increasing achievement on state tests and maintaining excellent attendance. Teachers and administrators are hired based on their demonstrated skills, and are fired without hesitation if they don’t meet high expectations, according to the AIMS website.
A focus on competition among students and staff drives the entire AIMS system. The school promotes competition because the American economy is based on competition, and students must be ready to succeed.
“We encourage all classes and American Indian Model school sites to compete with each other and instill in students the values of a free-market capitalistic society,” the AIMS website said.
In other words, Chavis’ school model flies in the face of the way traditional government schools conduct business. Its undeniable success at pushing lower-income minority students to reach new academic heights only highlights the Oakland school district’s miserable failures.
Perhaps what’s most amazing is that AIMS students outperform traditional Oakland students by wide margins, yet AIMS schools receive about half the per-student funding as the local school district.
Chavis doesn’t use a lack of funding as an excuse for a lack of success.
“This statement: ‘If schools had more money, students would achieve more academically’ is one of the biggest lies in education,” according to the AIMS website. “Schools don’t need more money. They need better money managers.
“Concerning finances, AIMS keeps it simple. Will these dollars aid in student improvement or ensure student safety? If the answer is no, the money does not get spent.
“You’d be hard pressed to find a public school with the same philosophy.”
‘Shouldn’t punish the kids’
Chavis’ style may be effective, but it also set him up for a showdown with local education authorities, and the AIMS schools have been caught in the crossfire.
Oakland school officials point to reports that Chavis cursed at students, called them derogatory names, and required them to clean bathrooms as punishment for misbehaving, according to media reports.
They launched probes into Chavis’ conduct, and he was fined by the AIMS board on at least one occasion, before he eventually left his position as principal of AIPCS and became an administrator with AIMS.
But by then his critics had him firmly in their sights.
He resigned from his administrative position about six months into the job, as the California Fiscal and Crisis Management Team launched an extraordinary audit of AIPCS at the supposed request of an anonymous whistleblower.
Two months later, the FCMT published its audit of AIPCS, which suggested fraud in retail agreements and construction bids and misuse of state summer school funds, among other things.
In March, the Oakland public school board voted to revoke the charter for all three AIMS schools in the city, citing “financial improprieties” alleged in the state audit. AIMS schools are now appealing the decision to the Alameda County Board of Education, and can appeal further to the California Board of Education, if necessary.
Chavis said the controversy revolves around real estate arrangements. AIMS rents school space from a company he owns, and his critics say that relationship is improper. They also question the amount of money he charges AIMS for rent.
“I lease the building to the school for $109 a square foot,” Chavis said. “There is no space in Oakland. There’s no school space.
“I have 65,000 square feet. I own the largest private school space in the city of Oakland,” he said, and he rents it to AIMS at a very reasonable rate.
Oakland public school officials are also taking issue with the charter system’s bookkeeping, which was conducted by a company owned by Chavis’ wife.
The company offered to maintain the financial books for AIPCS for about $200,000 less than other bidders, Chavis said, and the decision was a no-brainer.
“She doesn’t just do our schools, she does other charter schools,” Chavis said.
In total, state and Oakland school officials allege Chavis improperly earned $3.8 million through business deals between companies owned by himself, his wife and AIMS.
District officials have repeatedly said Chavis stole millions from Oakland taxpayers.
“If I stole $3.8 million, you know my (backside) would be in jail,” Chavis said of the allegations.
Nobody has been arrested or charged with any crime as a result of the state’s investigation. Regardless, Chavis’ critics have managed to malign his reputation, and are now targeting his schools for closure.
If he committed a crime, Chavis said the state should prosecute him.
But it hasn’t so far, and instead Oakland education officials are trying to take back what they believe is rightfully theirs – the students from his schools and the state money attached to them.
“They want their 1,200 kids back, that’s all it is,” Chavis said. “When Schwarzenegger was governor we were praised for being the best, now the Dems are back in charge and it’s payback.
“We shouldn’t punish the kids,” he said. “It doesn’t even make sense.”
The Alameda County Board of Education will hear AIMS’ appeal of the Oakland school board’s decision to revoke its three charters May 14.