L.A. County education officials seek to revoke group's charter

L.A. County Board of Education moves to revoke charter of Wisdom Academy of Young Scientists

The Los Angeles County Board of Education has notified a South Los Angeles charter school organization that it intends to revoke its charter after a state audit found that administrators funneled millions in state funds to the schools' founder and former director, her relatives and close associates.

The county board voted unanimously this month to notify officials of Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists of its intent after a lengthy review of the audit's findings. A public hearing is scheduled for Oct. 21.

Meanwhile, the audit's findings have been turned over to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said Kostas Kalaitzidis, a spokesman for the county office of education.

The audit, which was released in March, details a litany of financial irregularities at the charter school, which investigators described as rife with possible criminal fraud, conflicts of interest and misappropriation of public funds.

The governing board failed to provide proper oversight of the organization, giving founder and former director Kendra Okonkwo and others unrestricted access to assets and authority to enter into several business arrangements for personal gain without board approval, the audit contends.

The audit, conducted by the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, detailed a complicated web of transactions, payments and contracts among family members, close associates and businesses controlled by relatives or friends of Okonkwo.

Okonkwo said in an interview that the allegations were "fabrications" and that she did nothing wrong.

"I'm not a soldier, I'm not a politician. I'm just an educator," she said. "They've slandered me. All I want to do is educate children."

Beyond that, Okonkwo declined to comment.

Okonkwo founded Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists in 2006. The organization, which operates under the nonprofit Merle Williamson Foundation, opened a charter school in 2006 in partnership with Los Angeles Unified School District. The district did not renew the charter in 2011, citing a number of violations of education code, including conflicts of interests by the director and members of the board.

That same year, the county agreed to give the organization conditional approval to continue operating a charter school. Last year, the school enrolled about 530 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

As part of the agreement with the county, Okonkwo gave up her position as director. But Okonkwo appointed her son, daughter and another close associate to key positions in the organization. The arrangement enabled Okonkwo, family members and her close associates to both control and benefit from transactions using public funds, according to the audit.

"There is little evidence of responsible governance by the board and clearly a lack of fiscal accountability by the administration," the audit concluded. "The governing board has failed and often been prevented from its ability to maintain and exercise its responsibilities, authority, and control."

Investigators found about $2.6 million in payments were made to Okonkwo, her family members and close associates. None of the employees in question indicated any financial interest in school affairs on required conflict-of-interest statements, according to the audit.

Among the audit's findings: The organization leased two properties owned by Okonkwo's holding company, paying more than $1 million in rent over six years; paid Okonkwo $228,665 in severance, unused vacation and a vehicle lease despite a lack of documents to support the amount; paid more than $158,800 — ostensibly for books, paper and other supplies — to a company owned by a relative of Okonkwo. State auditors could not confirm that the school received any of the materials for which it paid.

The organization also paid a $566,803 settlement to a former teacher who sued the organization for wrongful termination after she was directed by Okonkwo to travel with her to Nigeria to marry Okonkwo's brother-in-law, for the purpose of making him a United States citizen. The teacher married the man, but refused to complete immigration paperwork.

The organization inappropriately paid for the settlement because Okonkwo was not acting within the scope of her employment, which would have shielded her from culpability, the audit found.

The audit also details a questionable automobile lease to the founder's husband, excess fuel purchases and more than $73,000 in payments to a dance studio owned by the founder's daughter for an after-school program.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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