Police investigate missing $350,000 from Fulton charter schools

More than $350,000 was withdrawn in cash or transferred from two new public Fulton County charter schools to a nonprofit created by their founder, the man police named as a suspect when more than $600,000 went missing from an Atlanta charter school.

Money from Fulton County’s Latin Grammar School and Latin College Preparatory School was transferred to a nonprofit foundation created by Chris Clemons, the founder of all three schools. And cash was withdrawn from ATMs, including one with the same address as a strip club, according to bank statements obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under Georgia’s Open Records Act.

The Fulton County schools, which did not authorize payments to Clemons or his nonprofit, are cooperating with a police investigation, Latin Grammar School board chairman Eric Banister said.

Clemons, who has not been charged with a crime, had access to bank accounts at the Fulton charter schools, Banister said. Banister declined to answer questions about who else had access.

Clemons has not responded to phone and email messages from the AJC.

Atlanta police began an investigation into the $600,000 missing from Atlanta’s Latin Academy in July when board members at that school reported the money stolen through ATM withdrawals and to pay for dinners, non-work-related travel, bonuses to employees and “personal entertainment at local night clubs,” a police report says.

After learning of the Atlanta allegations, the Fulton charter schools’ boards found transactions “they had not been apprised of or authorized” at their schools, Banister said. They terminated Clemons’ access to their bank accounts and notified Fulton County Schools and the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office.

Fulton County Schools spokeswoman Susan Hale told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in October that Fulton officials “have no reason to suspect any mismanagement” at the schools.

In response to questions Tuesday, she said that assertion referred to mismanagement by the schools’ governing boards. The district had no reason to conduct a financial review of the schools before July, when they began to receive funding through the school district, she said.

Both Latin Grammar and Latin College Preparatory schools were authorized by Fulton County Schools and are funded with tax dollars. They have their own governing boards and operate independently from the school district. Charter schools boards are responsible for financial oversight. The two Fulton schools shared a single board until July.

This spring, nearly $9,000 in cash was taken from the schools’ accounts in more than 30 withdrawals, according to financial records obtained by the AJC.

That included about $4,000 withdrawn at the same address as Goldrush Showbar, an Atlanta strip club.

One some days, cash withdrawals topped $1,000 and were scattered among multiple addresses.

Allowing cash withdrawals is not a best practice, said Georgia Charter Schools Association CEO Tony Roberts.

“I can’t see any instances where an employee of a charter school should be able to withdraw money directly from cash from a school account,” he said.

School records also show about $345,000 in multiple transfers of up to $75,000 went to Clemons’ Latin Schools Foundation.

The foundation was supposed to be the heart of a future national network of charter schools that emphasized teaching Latin and the “great books.”

Clemons’ foundation provided “start-up services” to both Fulton schools, Banister said. The schools had planned to hire Clemons’ foundation to provide training, accounting and other services—and pay him up to 8 percent of their revenue. But the schools didn’t follow through on that plan.

The schools have since hired a new financial services manager and “revisited” their financial management procedures, Banister said.

Fulton County school district staff have observed governing board operations twice, completed two spot inspections and one announced inspection at the schools, reviewed personnel files, conducted additional board training and performed three monthly budget checks, Hale said.

Latin Academy, the charter school authorized by Atlanta Public Schools, has also made changes, including establishing new financial safeguards.

But Latin Academy has refused to release bank statements and other business records in response to requests under Georgia’s Open Records Act. In withholding the records, lawyers for that school’s board cited a state law that allows the school to withhold records until the board acts on the findings of internal investigations.

On Monday, State Senator Vincent Fort called on the Atlanta school board to explain where the money went.

“Some people spent our money, tax money, at a nightclub because charter schools lack oversight,” he said. “Y’all ought to speak up. Don’t let it be the police. We need to know where the money went and what this board is going to do to provide oversight.”

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