ALPHARETTA, Ga. -- The audit of Fulton Science Academy paints a picture of a school skirting the rules. Board member Angela Lassetter says it's an inaccurate picture.
"You have gone through several audits in your school history, correct?" I asked Lassetter.
"Yes, every year," she said.
"Has there ever been any wrong-doing uncovered?" I asked.
"No," she said,
"Were the issues mentioned in this audit mentioned then?" I asked.
"No," she said.
The audit says the school paid $74,847 in immigration fees since 2009. It covered 19 employees, plus some of their family members. Of the 19, seven left shortly after the immigration help.
"We pay immigration services regularly for teachers that we bring in from abroad. It's a standard practice for all companies," Lassetter said. "They finished their contracts here and then went on to work at other companies, that's their choice at the end of contracts."
She disputes the report that school leaders created an "environment of resistance and obstructionism." The school is working on a detailed response to the audit. Lassetter expects to finish next week. "There are pages of factual errors that we need to work through," she said.
The audit points to self-dealing and conflict of interest, particularly with Grace Institute. Leaders at FSA stepped down from their unpaid positions on the Grace Institute board when Fulton County Schools told them to sever relationships. Three months later, the school voted to contract Grace for $70,000 in school software and professional development.
"Those things came to light," Fulton County School Superintendent Robert Avossa said. "That there was self-dealing and conflicts of interest."
Lassetter said the issue between FSA and Grace Institute has come up before and that they'd been "exonerated by Fulton County's own lawyers that we were doing nothing wrong."
"If you're going to make those accusations, you need to tell me, who benefitted? Who got paid? Where's the check?" Lassetter said.
It's not spelled out in the audit, but the connection to Grace Institute fuels concerns about a connection between the school and Turkish Imam Fethullah Gulen. The Fulton Science Academy focuses on math and science, and no one has accused them of teaching Islam or any religion affiliated with the Gulen movement.
Lassetter said she's read about the alleged connection in conspiracy blogs. But earlier this week, A New York Times article titled "Audits for 3 Georgia Charter Schools Tied to Gulen Movement" said "schools in Georgia run by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a prominent Turkish Imam, have come under scrutiny".
"I've read all of those, and I'm still wondering, what exactly is a Gulen school?" Lassetter said. "Fethullah Gulen has never been to this school. Fethullah Gulen has never e-mailed this school. Fethullah Gulen has never given compensation to this school. I mean, have you looked at this building? We're in a converted warehouse with peeling paint. We do what we have to do with state and county funding. Obviously, we are not compensated by a movement or we would not be here."
The Fulton Science Academy's plans to build a campus in Alpharetta for the elementary, middle, and high school are now on hold. Fulton Sunshine Academy and Fulton Science Academy High School now face their own audits with three years left in their charter contracts. And Wells Fargo, trustee of the school's $19 million bond, says it's in default because they lost their charter status.
As a blue ribbon school with a record of high test scores and high achieving students, Fulton Science Academy drew praise as an example of charter success. Now, it's drawing questions from Superintendent Avossa about the charter system and how tax dollars are used and tracked. "I would say this; we need to take a look at our responsibilities with charter schools and balance flexibility and autonomy with accountability."