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Pastor Stands By Charter School Manager

by Melissa Bailey | Jun 20, 2014 10:20 am

(23) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Schools, School Reform

Melissa Bailey File Photo Rev. Eldren Morrison, who’s about to open a new charter school in New Haven, came out Friday in support of the embattled charter management organization he has hired to help him.

His remarks came at the end of a week in which the Hartford Courant published three articles outlining how the charter organization, Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE), stands to be lose a contract to run a Hartford turnaround school amid concerns about its performance and new revelations about the criminal past of its CEO, Michael Sharpe.

Morrison (pictured above), pastor of Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, is set to open a new charter school called the Booker T. Washington Academy (BTWA) this August on Blake Street. He brought in FUSE, which runs the Jumoke charter schools in Hartford, to design the curriculum, hire staff, and run the day-to-day operations of the school.

Reached Friday, Morrison stood by FUSE and Sharpe.

He said FUSE’s “record is great with school startups.” Jumoke Academy, founded in 1997, is “one of the top charters in our state. “They do great with this. Their record over the last 20 years is great with this. They’ve been establishing quality education for our kids. That’s what we want to establish with BTWA.”

“I think their record speaks for itself,” he said of FUSE. “They have been top-rated in education. I love what they’re doing in their schools. I’d be proud if they could recreate the same accomplishment that they’ve had in other charters.”

Morrison said he plans to keep FUSE as the manager of the school. “That’s how we filed our application. They’re on record. ... Until something happens where they cannot manage it,” the organization will stay on board.

Morrison was asked if he knew of Sharpe’s past conviction for forgery and the two-plus years he spent in prison for a 1989 conviction of embezzling $100,000 from a public agency.

“No, I wasn’t aware of any criminal record,” Morrison said. “I wouldn’t have normally been aware of something like that.” He said he is not concerned about the convictions, which both occurred in the ‘80s. “If you look at Jumoke’s record, they’ve been able to surpass every audit” without problems, he said.

The recent news about FUSE will likely come up at an upcoming board meeting that will be scheduled in the next week. A board member Thursday described it as an “emergency board meeting”; Morrison said it’s a regular board meeting, but that the board hasn’t met for a while because he has been out of town.

A full earlier version of this story follows:

Melissa Bailey File Photo Contributed Photo Amid a scandal brewing in Hartford, New Haven Pastor Eldren D. Morrison is planning an emergency meeting of the Booker T. Washington Academy board to review its relationship with the charter management organization he hired to run the new school.

That charter organization, Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE),  stands to be booted from Hartford public schools amid concerns about its performance and new revelations about its CEO’s criminal past.

Morrison, pastor of New Haven’s Varick Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, got state permission in April to open a new charter school, dubbed Booker T. Washington Academy, in New Haven this fall with up to 300 students in grades pre-K to 3. Morrison brought in FUSE, which runs the Jumoke charter schools in Hartford, develop the curriculum, hire staff and run the day-to-day operations of Booker T. Washington Academy.

This week, some new revelations cast a shadow over FUSE‘s reputation. Two years after hiring FUSE to take over the low-performing Milner Elementary School, the Hartford school board announced it plans to regain control of the school and may cut ties with FUSE altogether, the Hartford Courant reported this week.

The district charged FUSE with failing to provide struggling kids with instructional materials, despite receiving an extra $2.64 million in state money for the school, and handing out school jobs to family members and people with criminal backgrounds, according to The Courant.

Principal Karen Lott, who left New Haven public schools in 2013 to lead Milner, said she experienced “periods of shock” and “disillusionment” with the FUSE partnership, according to an internal email obtained by the Courant.

FUSE’s troubles mounted Tuesday, when information emerged about FUSE CEO Michael Sharpe’s criminal background. Sharpe spent over two years in prison after pleading guilty in 1989 to federal charges of embezzling more than $100,000 and conspiring to defraud the Bay Area Rapid Transit District in California, according to the Courant. He also pleaded guilty in state Superior Court to two counts of third-degree forgery in 1985 relating to documents used to get a $415,000 rehabilitation loan.

In light of the revelations about Sharpe’s criminal past—which state and Hartford officials told the Courant they were unaware of—the Hartford school board has delayed a decision on whether to cut ties with FUSE entirely.

Morrison, meanwhile, has called for an “emergency meeting” of the board that governs Booker T. Washington, according to board member Jesse Phillips, who also works at Morrison’s church. At the meeting, the board will examine its relationship with FUSE in light of recent news, Phillips said.

Pastor Morrison declined repeated requests for an interview for this story. He responded with only this written statement: “What’s important to the parents of New Haven is the education they will get thanks to the relationship between the talented and experience educators at Jumoke and the Booker T. Washington Academy Family.”

Phillips declined to reveal how many students have signed so far for the school or whether the school has hired a principal.

FUSE does not hold the charter to Booker T. Washington. The Booker T. Washington board, which Morrison chairs, holds the charter and hired FUSE to manage the school.

Phillips said the meeting, which is open to the public, will happen “very soon.” He said a date had not yet been set.

State education spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly declined to say whether the state will reconsider its choice to let FUSE run Booker T. Washington Academy.

“We are concerned by this news” of Sharpe’s criminal past, Donnelly said in a written statement Thursday. “And there clearly are important questions for Dr. Sharpe to address. The focus of the Department remains, as always, to ensure a high quality education and positive experience for the children in these schools as well as all schools across the state.”

Sharpe did not return requests for comment for this story. In an email obtained by the Courant, he told FUSE officials that he is “requesting that several of the foundations that have been supporters of Jumoke and Fuse review the matters at hand and offer binding recommendations to our board concerning the need to appoint an interim chief officer pending a full review of the facts surrounding these issues; or they may recommend that I step down as leader and appointment of a permanent Executive Officer. I will be bound by their determination.”

Meanwhile, Jonathan Pelto, an education blogger, charter critic, and third-party gubernatorial hopeful, told the Independent that the state should have seen warning signs before letting FUSE expand. FUSE runs three Jumoke Academy charter schools in Hartford. The state let FUSE take over management of Milner in 2012 and Dunbar Elementary School in Bridgeport in 2013. It also recently received permission to run a charter school in Louisiana.

Pelto questioned why the state would let FUSE take on Booker T. Washington, given ongoing concerns about its Hartford school. The relationship between FUSE and Hartford has been strained. Hartford officials raised concerns that FUSE failed to follow through on the curriculum it had promised from Jumoke and lacked a clear strategic plan for the school.

Pelto said the state has allowed for FUSE’s swift expansion without due diligence.

Melissa Bailey File Photo Pelto said the state should not have let FUSE take over Milner at all: FUSE had never served an English-language-learner (ELL) student before taking over Milner, where a quarter of students were ELLs.

“The questions should have been raised long ago” about FUSE’s capacity to run Milner, he said.

“The fact that the commissioner claims that he did not know about Michael Sharpe[‘s]” criminal record is troubling, Pelto added. “They appear unwilling to take any due diligence before giving away these charter contracts.”

Donnelly replied that according to law, “Jumoke has been subject to annual independent audits to ensure the presence of strong financial practices and policies.” Donnelly added that Jumoke has cleared recent audits by third parties without a need for further compliance. And both FUSE-run turnaround schools require “background checks for all staff who work primarily with students.”

FUSE is the evolution of Jumoke Academy, a charter school that opened in Hartford in 1997. Jumoke has since expanded into a district of three schools, one elementary and two middle, in Hartford. The Jumoke district has outperformed Hartford schools, according to the state.

The state Department of Education pointed to areas in which FUSE has done well: The Jumoke district remains popular—462 student applied to the schools in 2012-13 school year, nearly triple the number of available seats (168). Math and reading scores in the 7th and 8th grade have risen at Milner, and behavior has improved at both Milner and Dunbar, according to the state.

Melissa Bailey File Photo Jumoke Academy at Milner Principal Lott (pictured), who led a turnaround at Brennan/Rogers K-8 public school in New Haven before joining Milner in 2013, told the Independent Thursday that FUSE is well respected in charter networks for the three charter schools it has created.

But “just because an organization might do well with start-up schools, doesn’t mean that they were equipped for turnaround work,” she said. As she noted to a national audience at a recent education leadership conference at the Omni Hotel, “turnaround work is different than startup work.”

At Milner, FUSE was “stepping into new territory” by taking over an existing school—and by taking over a school that had more poor, ELL
ELL and special-needs students than Jumoke was used to, Lott said. “This was definitely a different population” than the Jumoke charter schools.

Lott, who is employed by the Hartford public schools, said she plans to return as principal of Milner next year, no matter how the Hartford school board ends up curtailing or ending its relationship with FUSE.

She said the Booker T. Washington proposal, where FUSE would help create a new school, is quite different from Milner.

“They’re going into New Haven to start up a school,” she said. “There are going to be some completely different dynamics at play.”

Lott declined to comment in detail on FUSE’s performance, saying she wants to keep her focus on students’ success.

“For whatever has been the case this year, I’m just really trying to look forward to next year,” including “building on professional development for teachers so we can get to focusing on the academic realm.”

“Our scores are still really really low,” Lott said. “There’s still a tremendous amount of academic work that needs to be done.”

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posted by: Noteworthy on June 19, 2014  5:51pm

Fuse never should have been hired. This is what happens when those with little if any background in education get involved with “reform.”

posted by: timshortty on June 19, 2014  7:15pm

Surely, everyone knows what is going on!

posted by: zhunter on June 19, 2014  7:16pm

PLEASE NOTE: Booker T. Washington Academy is not related to Varick Memorial AME Zion Church. The two are very separate entities and should be referred to as such. All references regarding the school should not be stated as “Varick Charter” but as “Booker T. Washington Academy”.

Thank you.

posted by: Brutus2011 on June 19, 2014  8:14pm

There is a lot of money in education. It just is not for teachers or paras or those who actually work with our children day in and day out.

The money is for administrators, managers, consultants, testing companies, book dealers, etc, who all sop up the majority of the public tax dollars earmarked for public education before it gets to the classroom and our kids.

This is why the NHI and other news outlets reports the same education stories year after year with the only change being superfcialities and not substance. Or more simply put, the results don’t change year after year regardless of the hype.

Achievement First is doing no better than NHPS and Booker T Washington Academy will not either. But the money for those in administration in all 3 organizations affords upper middle class lifestyles—not bad in an economy like this one.

Kids First?

Really?

So, lets not focus too hard on Sharpe—we need to be thinking about all the other foxes guarding the hen house as well.

How long are we going to allow ourselves to be deceived?

posted by: Theodora on June 19, 2014  9:35pm

Wow. Emergency crisis and they don’t have any kids yet. This thing is going to be an enormous disaster.

posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on June 19, 2014  10:14pm

When the leadership of Varick Church promoted the idea of a new charter school, I assumed people from the church and local people would run the program. I find it strange that the churc would have a vision for a school and then turn over management to a “professional” educational organization.
The credibility of FUSE is shot. Its leader had a history of fraudulent activity. Has there been any investigation of his credentials?
For Booker T. Washington to proceed with FUSE at the helm would be unwise, unacceptable, and intolerable. What start a new school under a cloud of controversy? This appears to be a hot mess that Varick Church leaders did not expect. Varick will have no choicebut to dump FUSE in light of these revelations.

posted by: BillSaunders1 on June 20, 2014  1:35am

Where is Three Fifths when we need him? (Seriously)

posted by: Theodora on June 20, 2014  4:19am

ZHunter,

Feel free to keep pushing that statement that Varick and its charter are unrelated, but the two are headed by the same person. Its congregation shared up en masse to show support of the effort. Its in-house leadership will be coming from the congregation. It is impossible to separate the two entities.

To say that Varick and its charter are “unrelated” is laughably untrue.

posted by: ElmCityVoice on June 20, 2014  7:45am

Like TAP, i presumed Varick had a vision of its own, not a rubber stamp “fill in the dots” outside vendor. Too bad. This leaves Common Ground as the only truly merit worthy charter in New Haven.

posted by: Threefifths on June 20, 2014  8:12am

Glen Ford.Charters Have Nothing to do With Community Control of Schools

Charter school advocates are among the biggest scam artists in politics. They use the language of community control to transfer public assets into private hands.That’s why billionaires love charters! The public pays the bill, while private companies reap the profits. Public education represents an almost trillion dollar a year pool of money. That’s what’s got the billionaires so hot: charters are the ideal deal, where the public takes all the risk and the corporations can’t lose. Only the kids, and the society they inherit, lose.Black parents are especially susceptible to the privatizers’ propaganda.Corporate education is responsible to shareholders, not parents or students.

posted by: NewHavenPublic on June 20, 2014  8:13am

Now is the time to stop the “Booker T. Washington” AME Zion church-charter school.

The church hired corporate reformers (FUSE) to operate the school, and is planning to staff the board of directors with the pastor, chief of staff from the church, and first lady of the church.  The first lady will then “apply for a staff position with the Academy”.  See p. 30 of the application: 

http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/pdf/equity/public_hearings/bookert_washington_app.pdf


Parochial schools have a right to open and parents may choose to send their children to these schools.  Churches and corporate operators should be prohibited from taking taxpayer dollars to fund private or parochial schools.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on June 20, 2014  9:10am

The problem is not FUSE (which obviously has major problems), it is CHARTER SCHOOLS taking over and privatizing our most democratic institution—the public school system. Garth Harries, Toni Harp, Dan Malloy, Arne Duncan, and Barack Obama are all major proponents of charter schools. Republican politicians are even more vociferous proponents of charter schools. Common Core is a tool for charter-ization (=privatization).

The only people I know of in New Haven actually doing any real work to inform people and push back are some public school teachers. Their efforts are greatly appreciated, but it’s going to take a lot more work by the rest of us to slow down this huge transformation of our education system. http://www.standardizedthefilm.com/

posted by: Threefifths on June 20, 2014  9:30am

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on June 20, 2014 9:10am

The only people I know of in New Haven actually doing any real work to inform people and push back are some public school teachers. Their efforts are greatly appreciated, but it’s going to take a lot more work by the rest of us to slow down this huge transformation of our education system.


New Haven needs to do this.Bridgeport, Stamford might challenge charters
 
Linda Conner Lambeck and Rob Varnon

http://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Bridgeport-Stamford-might-challenge-charters-5440004.php

posted by: Noteworthy on June 20, 2014  12:48pm

Rock and a Hard Place Notes:

1. The comments by Pastor Morrison are very disturbing but understandable.

2. If FUSE is out, his wife may or may not get a job at his magnet school. It also puts his approval with the state in jeopardy since the approved charter application was propped up with the bio of FUSE. The qualifications of those underneath it were insufficient to gain approval.

3. It is clear that in the Hartford schools, FUSE is failing. That Jumoke Academy is considered successful has nothing to do with FUSE. Jumoke has been around for 17 years and has always been successful.

4. FUSE is only a vehicle to monetize and capitalize on Dr. Sharp’s family history at Jumoke. It is being paid millions of taxpayer dollars as a management company but when it comes to management of more than one school - it is failing.

5. So why is Morrison still supporting Sharp and FUSE is the real question. His limited comments are not dispositive and really fails the rationale test once you separate Jumoke from FUSE. Hopefully the good pastor will seek Higher input.

posted by: msconcerned on June 20, 2014  1:44pm

Due diligence - what was the catalyst for the birth of this school.  What are the projected outcomes, SWOT analysis was on performed? Parental involvement and surveys.  Is the present system of education is in need of an overhaul or should the little people be groomed before leaving their homes.  Different opinions from different perspectives, surely, however, I like the comment that suggests the answer come from “Higher Input”.

posted by: Threefifths on June 20, 2014  4:13pm

I got a feeling that more is going to come out on Mr.  Sharper trust me.As far as Pastor Morrison saying FUSE’s “record is great with school startups.If this is the case then why FUSE is faces heavy criticism from the Hartford school system over its two-year management of Milner Elementary School.?All I can say is I smell Mackreal.

MY BAD.


Criminal convictions and past imprisonment of Michael M. Sharpe, the CEO of a charter school organization that receives millions in taxpayer funds, are worrying Hartford and state officials – who said Wednesday they hadn’t known of his record and now want answers.

Like I said Far from over.

posted by: Brutus2011 on June 20, 2014  7:35pm

Ohk, it seems as though Dr. Sharpe is really Mr. Sharpe….I guess you don’t get the cash until you change the “M” to a “D.”

I don’t like piling on this guy but doggone it, he really has a credibility problem now….and frankly, I am beginning to wonder about these church folks….as in, should they really be overseeing a school?

And before anybody takes offense, my Granddad was a Baptist minister in Harlem with a bona-fide Dr of Divinity from Lincoln University. Believe me, some preachers are truly anointed, and some not so much..

posted by: Threefifths on June 20, 2014  10:16pm

Reached Friday, Morrison stood by FUSE and Sharpe

Hey Rev.you better read this.


The downfall of another Charter School Management Company.


As the Hartford Courant is reporting in a breaking news story,


“In a New Year’s message last December, the CEO of the Jumoke Academy charter school shared his enthusiastic vision for 2014, signing the letter, “Yours Truly, Dr. Michael Sharpe.

[…]

But on Friday, after the Courant questioned his academic background, Sharpe acknowledged that he never earned a doctoral degree and for years has erroneously been described as a “doctor.”

But Sharpe has now admitted that his resume is “doctored” and that, in fact, he doesn’t have a doctorate.  Sharpe told the Hartford Courant, “I did not complete the work. People started calling me doctor while I was in school, and I have always told people, ‘Don’t do it,’ but it catches on and people just keep doing it.”


Sharpe’s admission of the false credential comes days after state and city school officials said they were surprised to learn that Sharpe — whose charter group is heavily financed with state money — had a criminal history and was imprisoned decades ago in connection with a federal corruption case.


Read the rest.

http://jonathanpelto.com/2014/06/20/downfall-another-charter-school-management-company/


Like I said.There will be more.

posted by: Razzie on June 21, 2014  9:30am

Looking at the BTWA website, its current Board of Directors consisting of Pastor Morrison, his wife, his Chief of Staff, and 2 others looks looks awfully short on organizational and educational expertise. Perhaps that is why they missed the warning signs and invested so heavily into Mr. Sharpe.

I don’t believe that a prior criminal record should automatically disqualify Mr. Sharpe, but the nature of the prior convictions is extremely troubling. However, some major restructuring of the BTWA board and its imbedded staff is clearly in order if Sharpe is to continue running BTWA. I believe the good pastor is WA-A-Y in over his head on this one.

posted by: iteach2014 on June 22, 2014  11:01pm

Unfortunately, education is one of the few professions in which non-practitioners can rise to key leadership positions. Imagine a Chief of Neurosurgery who did not possess a medical degree. Would you want him to make decisions for your care? Why, then, are we so eager to afford non-educators the opportunity to attempt to educate our children? Does the Pastor of Varick Church have a college degree? Does Jesse Phillips or the pastor’s wife? If so, are they certified teachers in the state of CT, and/or possess an administrative degree in Educational Leadership? What qualifies them to take on such an important role in the community? As a taxpayer, I resent having my hard-earned dollars used as well-disguised welfare for under-achieving adults who seek to make a living on the backs of children. I’m sure the pastor, his wife and Phillips stand to make substantially more than most city educators. This madness has to stop! When our children lose, we all lose. We must fight to defend the most vulnerable citizens of New Haven, our precious children.Several years ago, many of our children found themselves in a challenging learning environment at the now defunct, Village Academy. After several years of unethical practices by the school’s director and high teacher turnaround, the charter was revoked by the state.Many of those young people still suffer from the lingering effects of a poor education. In today’s issue of The Hartford Courant, Sharpe reportedly sent an email to several of his senior administrators in regard to the FUSE expansion to New Haven and Baton Rouge.  In the May 26 email obtained by The Courant he wrote, “There is no overarching strategy in play-we are winging it.”  If Varick’s pastor and the supporters of Booker T. want to run a school with no overarching plan, shame on them.  Our children deserve better!

posted by: Threefifths on June 22, 2014  11:40pm

Now What are you going to do.

Jumoke Charter Group CEO Resigns After Revelations
Hartford To Take Back Milner School From Academy


Sharpe acknowledged to The Courant Friday that he was not a graduate of New York University and had not completed coursework for a doctorate in education or a Ph.D., despite being credited with some version of that prestigious academic credential in various school materials, biographies and legislative testimony over the past decade.

http://www.courant.com/community/hartford/hc-hartford-sharpe-jumoke-0622-20140621,0,558620.story

posted by: Nashstreeter on June 23, 2014  12:22am

Absolutely, NewHavenPublic! Here we have a church with a set of beliefs unique to their denomination, and they want to set up a school and call it “public.” Just calling it “public will bring forth taxpayer money to further their religious objectives, though the public will have no control over the school. I thought we had a Constitution that addressed this sort of thing. Not any more, it looks like.

posted by: Noteworthy on June 23, 2014  6:37am

Calling Dr. Charter Notes:

1. Now that Dr. Sharpe has admitted he doctored his educational background, including only being Mr. Sharpe, not Dr. Sharpe - this should give pause to Pastor Morrison.

2. In fact, Sharpe has now resigned from Jumoke - not FUSE yet.

3. That’s not surprising since the real money is with FUSE but how can one continue to operate FUSE, providing educational expertise to people like Morrison when the basis of it is the same as Jumoke?

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