Pastor Boots FUSE, Finds New Charter Partner

Melissa Bailey PhotoPastor Eldren D. Morrison is applying for state permission to replace the embattled charter management organization that was supposed to help launch his new school this fall—but, after an illegal closed-door meeting, refused to say who the new partner is.

The board of Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA), a charter school that Morrison aims to launch this fall in New Haven with $2.5 million in state money, has chosen a new partner to replace the embattled provider it had teamed up with, Chaka Felder-McEntire, the Booker T. Washington board vice-chair, told the Independent Monday.

The BTWA board refused to identify the partner.

Felder-McEntire said only that the partner “has experience in running school districts and charter and public schools.” She said the board is not ready to announce who the partner is.

Morrison said he still plans to launch the school in the fall with 225 students. He said he plans to submit a revised application to the state this week seeking approval of the new partner.

Meanwhile, an official with the Freedom of Information Commission said the BTWA board had no legal right to go behind closed doors to discuss public matters identified on an agenda in an emergency meeting Sunday.

The developments came amid fast-changing plans for the city’s newest charter school after the partner it first chose to run the school, Family Urban Schools of Excellence, Inc. (FUSE), unraveled in a series of troubling revelations. Morrison initially stood by FUSE and its CEO, Michael Sharpe, and even invited Sharpe to the church service two Sundays ago.

Then in an emergency meeting Sunday, Morrison and the BTWA board of directors voted unanimously in public session to cut ties with FUSE. The separation came in the wake of revelations that Sharpe had lied about having a doctorate in education and had resigned from FUSE, along with two other top FUSE executives.

Morrison and his board members huddled Sunday for about five minutes behind closed doors during an “executive session.” The stated purpose was to discuss “operations, board governance, fiduciary agent and facilities update”—none of which are legal reasons to go behind close doors, according to Tom Hennick, public education officer at the state Freedom of Information Commission. By state law, public boards can go into executive session only for limited purposes, such as to discuss pending litigation, personnel matters, or the sale or lease of property.

“None of those look appropriate for executive session as framed on the agenda,” Hennick said.

After the meeting, Morrison refused to say what was discussed during executive session, or whether any votes were taken. He refused to give any details on how the school is progressing, including which staff had been hired or how many students had applied.

Felder-McEntire told the Independent Monday that 160 students have applied to BTWA. The school has hired a principal but is not yet ready to announce who it is, she added.

Felder-McEntire said BTWA submitted a “draft” proposal to the state last week outlining its new partner; she declined to provide a copy of that draft as of press time. That document would be public as soon as it has been submitted to the state, according to Hennick. State education spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said the state has not received a revised proposal from BTWA; it expects to receive one by the end of the week.

At a special meeting Monday, the state board of education hired a law firm to investigate FUSE. Board Member Charles Jaskiewicz suggested Morrison and his colleagues delay opening Booker T. Washington for one year because of the setback, according to the Courant.

A previous version of this story follows:

Pastor Ditches FUSE, Redraws Charter Plans

Lucy Gellman PhotoAfter cutting ties with the embattled charter management organization he hired to help him create a new charter school, Pastor Eldren D. Morrison is scrambling to come up with a new plan to open the school this fall.

Morrison announced that news at an emergency meeting Sunday of the board of directors of the Booker T. Washington Academy, a charter school Morrison plans to launch this fall with 225 students on Blake Street.

Morrison, pastor of Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, had hired Family Urban Schools of Excellence, Inc. (FUSE), which runs the Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford, to run the day-to-day operations of the new New Haven school. The state approved Morrison’s plan to run the school with FUSE as a partner, and with $2.5 million in state money for the next academic year.

Morrison announced over the weekend that Booker T. Washington was “immediately” ending its relationship with FUSE. The breakup came in the wake of mounting troubles in the charter organization, including revelations in the Hartford Courant that FUSE’s CEO, Michael Sharpe, had lied about having a doctorate in education and had served federal prison time for embezzling public money. FUSE began to implode in the past 10 days, when Sharpe and then two other top FUSE executives resigned. State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor on Friday called for the state to launch an investigation into FUSE, which also manages turnaround schools in Bridgeport and Hartford; the state board of education is holding an emergency meeting Monday to discuss that proposal.

In the wake of the unfolding scandal, Morrison regrouped with his board members after church service Sunday afternoon at Varick’s Parish House.

FUSE was hired to perform every essential function in launching and running the school: hiring staff, recruiting students, designing the curriculum, and managing day-to-day operations. Without FUSE, the Booker T. Washington board will have to step in and perform those roles themselves, hire another partner to do so, or delay the school’s opening.

During part of the 17-minute meeting, the board met in executive session to discuss: “operations, board governance, fiduciary agent, and facilities update.” Morrison refused to say what was discussed. Back in public session, the board voted to name the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven as its fiduciary agent.

After the meeting, Morrison told the Independent that despite the major setback, he still aims to open the charter school in early September with 225 students. As of May 27, only 60 students had applied.

Board members have drafted an “alternate plan” for how to run the school without FUSE, Morrison said. He said he would submit a final version of the plan to the state this week.

“Depending on how the state views it [the plan], we will move forward,” he said. He declined to say whether he would seek another charter management company, or to give any specifics on the plan.

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 30, 2014  8:34am

Hey Rev.You want to fix this problem with your Charter School.Follow this.

How to fix the charter school movement (and what Albert Shanker really said)

1. Albert Shanker was president of the American Federation of Teachers, not the New York City union, when he first proposed the charter school idea in 1988.

2. Shanker proposed that any new charter should be jointly approved by the union and the school district. More than 90% of charters today are non-union. Shanker would not have approved any school that did not respect the rights of teachers to bargain collectively.

3. Shanker proposed that new charters should target the hardest-to-educate students: those who had dropped out or were failing. He never imagined that charters would have a selection process or that charters might avoid students with disabilities or English-language learners as is now the case in many charters.

3. Shanker wanted charters to collaborate, not compete, with existing public schools. He proposed them as a way to solve the problems of public schools. Whatever they learned, he said, should be shared with the public schools that sponsored them.

Part one.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 30, 2014  8:37am

Part Two.

4. MOST IMPORTANT: In 1993, when Shanker saw that the charter idea was going to be used to privatize public education, he turned against charter schools. He opposed the takeover of the charter idea by corporations, entrepreneurs, and for-profit vendors. He became a vocal opponent of charter schools when he realized that his idea was embraced by “the education industry.” In his weekly column in The New York Times, Albert Shanker repeatedly denounced charter schools, vouchers, and for-profit management as “quick fixes that won’t fix anything.”

And if you think this will not work.Take a look at this charter School.

Common Ground

posted by: Theodora on June 30, 2014  8:53am

Utilizing taxpayer dollars for education seems to be the most important use. And now our dollars are being apportioned for a church leader who obtained a school charter from a proposal which has proven to be invalid. This church leader is floundering about without a plan and the plan remains to redirect taxpayer dollars away from our public schools to him?

A lack of intervention would be exceedingly negligent at this point. Is there any political leader — and many were a part of this sorry episode — who will stand up and put the brakes on this wasteful endeavor. This isn’t just about throwing money out the window, it is about a group of misguided amateurs doing harm to students.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on June 30, 2014  8:57am

If recent NY Times reports are to be believed, there is no difference in outcomes between public and charter schools, although charters can cherry pick the best students and eliminate the problematical ones.

Charter schools are NOT a solution and the diversion of funds undermines public education.

Reducing funding for public school education is just another way of realizing Grover Norquist’s dream of making “government small enough to drown it in a bath tub”.

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on June 30, 2014  11:29am

Glad to hear that Morrison has cut ties with FUSE. Troubled to hear that 225 students will be subjected to yet another educational “experiment” as BTW scrambles to define its direction and leadership in less than 60 days. The school has already chosen a new school leader and management team (HATE that this term is applied to education). Is this adequate time to do due diligence this time and sufficiently check their credentials, background, qualifications, and expertise?

That so many parents are willing to play the “wait and see” game says a lot about the level of desperation that so many face in trying to identify quality educational options for their children. It’s a shame that in such an advanced nation we haven’t figured out how to do this well.

posted by: Razzie on June 30, 2014  11:55am

It is good to see the action taken by Rev. Morrison to separate from the ongoing disaster known as Michael Sharpe and his band of cronies at FUSE. In the wake of the State DoE investigation of the financing and operation of FUSE/Jumoke, Sharpe and his high level associates are abandoning their very lucrative positions and heading for the hills. That leaves Rev. Morrison with few options to salvage the upcoming BTWA school opening scheduled for the fall school year.

In developing its options, I would encourage BTWA officials to be more transparent to the community in what their plans and organizational structure will be. So far, the level of secrecy and lack of information from Rev. Morrison is troubling, and in the long run counterproductive to gaining the needed support of the community BTWA seeks to serve. Please don’t repeat the lessons being learned from the FUSE implosion.,0,5161118.story

posted by: connecticutcontrarian on June 30, 2014  1:57pm

Illegal meetings. Secret sessions. Bumbled announcements.  This would be comical if kids weren’t involved.  Instead it’s downright pitiful.

Im willing to bet a cup of coffee at Willoughby that BTW hires Reggio Mayo to help get the school off the ground.

posted by: Noteworthy on June 30, 2014  3:17pm

Sin Notes:

1. It’s a sin to violate FOIA laws.
2. If you want our money and our children adhere indeed embrace open and honest governance.
3. Arrogance is also a sin. The entire handling of this matter from inception has been rooted here. Denial. Support. Reluctant separation all done in response to questions while secretly filing an amended plan? And the board went along with this and only discussed such a big change for a few secret moments?
4. Lying is also a sin.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on June 30, 2014  4:21pm

I am beginning to think that the State should revoke this charter. There is so much confusion, lack of transparency, and doubts about the leadership of this proposed school. Maybe they should go back to the drawing board and rewrite their proposal, or simply abandon the plan for a Booker T. Washington/ Varick Church school.
Another school in this community, managed by a professional education organization with no roots or ties to this community is not needed here. Is there a lack of professional educators in this community that there is a need to hire educational mercenaries to come to New Haven to show our folks how to successfully run a school? If the Varick group had a plan and vision for a charter school and does not have the skills, experience and local trained staff to run the school, develop a curriculum, and do everything else expected to operate a school, why apply for grants from the state to turn over operation to people from outside of the state?
Maybe Connecticut needs to reconsider doling out all this money to groups who want to start charters, especially if the groups have no experience or ability to do the job themselves. Outsourcing the education of our young people to me is senseless!
There is no way I would consider sending my children to this school at this point. Maybe Varick members and their families are excited at the prospect. I am not. I am beginning to be turned off by the whole charter school ENTERPRISE. I do not question the sincerity of the Varick group, but I do question their judgment and their wisdom. Closing off their board meeting from public scrutiny in violation of state law will not help their case at all. What are they trying to hide?

posted by: Champ358 on June 30, 2014  10:10pm

Threefifths’ comments are educational and descriptive of the problems with the current charter “movement” (if a marketing strategy can be called a movement). Is it now legal to pierce the church/state distinction? Did I miss another 5-4 Roberts’ court decision?

posted by: fastdriver on June 30, 2014  11:48pm

Doesn’t ANYONE check the credentials of these people? Wonder if there are more with fake credentials in the New Haven system with people who are being paid more than they should be?

posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on July 1, 2014  12:59am

Where’s the oversight?

posted by: Razzie on July 1, 2014  1:43pm

Coming on the heels of a very distasteful and unpleasant episode with the prior Pastor, you would think that Varick AME would have a greater appreciation for these issues of alleged financial mismanagement and other organizational mishaps. There is nothing at this point that implicates the current BTWA/Varick officials in anything illegal. And Rev Morrison should take great pains to keep it that way—in appearance as well as in fact.

Rev. Morrison is a member of the NH Fire Commission, and is well aware of the requirements of the CT Open Meeting Laws. It escapes me why he insists on holding meetings and taking actions that are clearly in violation of the BTWA public charter school status. You simply cannot expect to run BTWA in the same manner as Sharpe ran Jumoke/FUSE.

posted by: Honest in New Haven on July 1, 2014  7:49pm

No doubt Pastor Morrison is an honorable and well intentioned man, but he has a lot to learn about operating under public scrutiny, something that many pastors are not used to.  A good place to start would be learning about Freedon of Information laws and other regulations that pertain to nonprofit boards.

posted by: Theodora on July 2, 2014  5:56pm

How can Felder work in a dual role of being paid by the school district and working to siphon students from the school district?