Charter school leader draws inspiration from a Turkish cleric embroiled in controversy: 'He inspired me to serve'

The  leader of a group of charter schools has made an admission about his connection to a Turkish imam that is bound to cause controversy but that he hopes ultimately will remove a dark cloud over his schools.

Umit Yapanel, president of the board of directors of Magnolia Public Schools, told The Times in an interview that he is a believer in the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, the popular Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government accuses of fomenting a failed coup attempt in July. 

Yapanel likened Gülen’s moderate Islam to the teachings of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian and Sufi mystic. 

“He inspired me to serve, and those values are the same universally accepted values: women’s rights, free speech, the right to education, service to others,” he said.

Gülen, he said, is “the Islamic scholar of his time who interpreted the religion in a way to embrace anyone…. I’m proud of that heritage.”

The alleged connection of publicly funded charter schools to Gülen is one of the strangest side stories to emerge from the unrest in Turkey. 

After the one-day coup attempt fell apart, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed the rebellion on Gülen, 75, who is living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Erdoğan demanded Gülen’s extradition and began a sweeping purge of alleged Gülen supporters inside and outside government. 

But even before the coup attempt, an attorney hired by the Turkish government — and some other critics — were asserting that charters in numerous states, including the 10 run by Magnolia Public Schools, had improper ties to Gülen.

The most extreme allegations are that the well over 100 charter schools managed by first- or second-generation Turkish immigrants are controlled by Gülen or his close followers, who funnel U.S. taxpayer funds to the Gülen movement.

Charters are independently managed public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses.

“This is much deeper and darker than people familiar with the charter-school debate understand,” said attorney Robert Amsterdam, whose firm, according to federal filings, is being paid $50,000 a month by the Turkish government.

State and federal investigations have yet to proclaim any direct links between the schools and Gülen. Nor have they talked about taxpayer funds being secreted abroad. Past investigations, however, have turned up issues in contracting, management and hiring practices at schools with Turkish leadership. 

One area of concern has been the reliance on a network of Turkish contractors to provide services to these schools, which is not illegal if the bidding for work is fair and the money is spent properly. 

Magnolia’s use of a firm called Accord Institute for Educational Research attracted attention from L.A. Unified and the state auditor. Accord provides educational services for charters with Turkish leadership in several states.

A former Magnolia chief executive helped found Accord and later served as Accord’s CEO after his work at Magnolia. While he was at Magnolia, Accord secured a $700,000 contract for work with the charter, the state auditor reported in 2015. 

Yapanel, Magnolia’s board president, acknowledged that he had a part-time job with Accord when he was board president of another charter in Colorado.

State and local auditors looking at Magnolia also unearthed a long list of poor financial practices. Citing these issues, L.A. Unified moved to shut down two Magnolia schools, which Magnolia thwarted by suing and then agreeing to improve management practices. The school cut ties with Accord. 

Magnolia also turned over its chief executive position to Caprice Young, a former L.A. school board member who later headed the California Charter Schools Assn. Even some critics concede that Young has improved Magnolia’s business practices.

The state auditor was largely satisfied with Magnolia’s progress, although L.A. Unified has not yet closed its investigation and the state Education Department has opened another. 

Yapanel, 39, who lives in Sunnyvale in the Bay Area, came to the United States to earn his doctorate at the University of Colorado Boulder. As a student, he was part of a small team that founded Lotus School for Excellence in Aurora, Colo., and he served as its board president for five years. His interest in education, he said, was in part a reaction to the rigid Turkish schooling model.

“Education can be limiting when you tell students there is one way to do things,” Yapanel said.

His primary employment has been as an engineer, most recently in the cellphone industry. He became involved with Magnolia, which opened its first school in 2002, as it was starting a school in Santa Clara. In 2012, the school’s leadership asked him to be board president. The current schools, which enroll 3,800 students, all are in Southern California.

The schools celebrate Turkish culture and some offer Turkish language instruction — but they do no proselytizing, officials said. 

The schools have always garnered strong scores on state standardized tests. 

Still, Magnolia’s operations — including any Gülen role  —  have merited scrutiny, said L.A. school board President Steve Zimmer.

“The question is how did that influence the practices and potentially the pedagogy of the people running these schools and the business practices of the organization,” he said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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