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:
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.
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.
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.”