|Senator John Albers (R-Roswell) recieved over $4,000 in contributions from Fulton Science Acdemy in 2011-2012 and was still unable to save the troubled school. Better luck next time, save your money for the next state audit ...stay tuned.|
An embattled charter school in Fulton County got some high-powered help in its unsuccessful quest to have its charter renewed by Fulton County Public Schools.
In December, 11 state legislators wrote a strongly worded letter to the Fulton school board expressing their disappointment that the charter of Fulton Science Academy Middle School had not been renewed that month. Such a move by lawmakers on behalf of a charter school is not common, said Louis J. Erste, director of Georgia's charter division.
Several people connected to Fulton Science Academy Middle School donated thousands of dollars to two state legislators, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis. The primary recipient was state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who received at least $4,000 from FSA leaders in 2011 and 2012. He and Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock met with Fulton County Superintendent Robert Avossa in November to discuss FSA’s case.
The contributions to Albers, one of the 11 legislators who signed the December letter, were legal. Albers said he is very involved with all the schools in his district, and the people who donated to his campaign live in his district. The AJC analysis did not find donations to the other 10 signers, which included Rogers and Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones. Albers, who would only answer questions via email, said all of the signers helped craft the letter.
Fulton school officials, who have said they had long-standing concerns about the financial and structural management of FSA, were prepared to offer a three-year renewal, but school officials and their legislative allies wanted a 10-year extension. The state school board rejected the school's appeal in May.
An audit of the school released this month found a basis for some of those financial and management concerns. Leaders from the award-winning charter school say the audit's claims are "baseless," and they plan to release a detailed response this week.
FSA plans to convert to a private school this fall, but while FSA was fighting to remain a public charter school, several top leaders made donations to Albers. On Jan. 8, board president Ayhan Korucu and vice president Maria Beug-Deeb each contributed $1,000. Principal Kenan Sener donated $250. The donations represent a small portion of the $79,201 Albers has collected since January 2010, according to state campaign finance records.
Albers, who is vice chairman of the finance, public safety and science and technology committees as well as a deputy whip, said he had several fundraisers before the legislative session. He is also a member of the education committee and two others, according to his website.
Records show Sener made a $1,000 donation to Albers in July 2011. In an email, Sener said he lived in Albers' district until last September, and appreciated the work that he did for the district and the state.
"The public officials helped our school because they believed in our school and our students and our faculty and they have done so for years," he wrote. "The public officials who spoke out for us also spoke out for charter schools in general."
Korucu, the board president, said his January donation was the first time he gave to Albers’ campaign, but he has donated to other Republicans in the past. Korucu said that his donations had “nothing to do with the school whatsoever.”
“I admire Albers’ work with youth and education,” he said.
Tuncay Kucuktas, who at one time was listed as the school’s chief financial officer, gave $500 in 2010 to Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, who has spoken out in favor of charter schools but did not sign the December letter.
Avossa had been superintendent for only a few months in November 2011 when he met with Albers and Rogers. Avossa said the legislators did not direct him to extend the school’s charter.
“They had questions about the process, about timelines,” Avossa recalled.
Rogers did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment about his effort to get FSA’s charter renewed. Jones also could not be reached by telephone or email.
FSA has a record of high academic achievement. It was one of seven Georgia schools designated as a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. At the time of the meeting, the district had not yet asked for the audit.
“Had the [audit] information that we had been available at that point, would folks have felt differently?” Avossa said. “The timing of that information is critical.”
Albers said in an email that he has not reviewed all the findings of the audit and "will reserve judgment until all the facts are made available." He said concerns about his advocacy for the charter school were from a couple of political opponents who are trying to create controversy where it doesn't exist.
Charter schools are public schools that operate outside of the local school board, and money follows students from their zoned public school to their charter school of choice.
“What you have is legislators with an ideological ax to grind demanding that a duly elected school board do their bidding. And that’s not a good thing," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. "These decisions should be made on the merits.”
AJC data specialist Kelly Guckian contributed to this article.
Questions about Fulton Science Academy Middle School's finances and organizational structure are sure to be raised again this fall as voters consider whether the state constitution should be amended to create another path for the state to create and fund charter school applications.
Republicans have generally backed charter schools as an important alternative for students in public schools that have poor academic track records. Many Democrats also back charter schools, but some argue that more money for charter schools means less money for already-cash-strapped traditional public schools.