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Dept. of Ed committee recommends probation with significant conditions for Odyssey Charter

Delaware Public Media

First came the stern warnings, then the humble promise and, finally, the recommended terms of probation for the conflict-plagued leadership of the 1,800-student Odyssey Charter School.

Before making its judgment at the end of a meeting that lasted nearly two hours, the Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee (CSAC) summarized the state’s charges against the suburban Wilmington K-12 school, and heard Odyssey officials describe the steps they would take to prevent recurrences.

Those charges, detailed in a May 15 letter from Secretary of Education Susan L. Bunting to Josiah Wolcott, president of the board of directors of the Greek-themed school, include misappropriation of state funds, violations of the school’s own conflict of interest policy, violating the state constitution’s ban on sex discrimination, self-dealing by board members and board member actions that raise suspicions that they are engaging in conduct contrary to the public trust.

Most of the charges relate to current bylaws that ensured majority control of the board of directors by members of the Wilmington chapter of American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA), the Greek men’s association that founded the school, and to transactions approved by the AHEPA majority, sometimes without the knowledge of other board members, to use Odyssey funds for purposes related to establishing the proposed Ithaka Early Learning Center preschool in a building on Odyssey’s Barley Mill Plaza campus.

Odyssey’s management faced similar, but less serious, allegations concerning its governance from the state’s Charter School Office five years ago.

The warnings came from two non-voting CSAC members, State Board of Education representative Audrey Noble and Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.

Early in the meeting, Noble delivered a message on behalf of the state board. “Our concern is not with the educational program whatsoever, but rather with “financial improprieties and government issues,” she said, adding that thus far Odyssey’s leadership had been “tone-deaf” to the concerns on these matters expressed both by the state board and the state Public Integrity Commission.

She then referred to the earlier allegations against Odyssey’s leaders, including violations of open meeting laws and of school bylaws, as well as a lack of transparency. “Here we are again, five years later,” she said.

Then it was Massett’s turn. After referring to the prior charges she said that members of the committee “are saying ‘Get it fixed.’”

“It’s not fair to the 1,800 children at Odyssey, to the 16,088 children in charter schools, to the taxpayers of the state of Delaware, and to your authorizer [the State Board of Education],” Massett said.

Elias Rigas, representing Odyssey’s board at Monday’s meeting, acknowledged the concerns with the conflicts of interest and lack of transparency displayed by the school’s leadership. “We’re looking to seriously address those issues,” he said. “We hear what you’re saying. These are excellent and valid points…. There are problems with our infrastructure, with how we govern. We want to fix those things.”

Then he added a promise: “What was is not what it’s going to be.”

Chuck Longfellow, the Department of Education administrator who serves as CSAC chair, then proposed placing Odyssey on probation, listing 16 conditions for the school to satisfy, including 12 related to its governance. Other CSAC members suggested several changes to Longfellow’s draft and added two more conditions before voting to approve the recommendations.

The vote, however, is not the final step in the review process. Next, CSAC must deliver a written report to Bunting and to the school by Friday (June 28). Another public hearing on the issue is scheduled for July 8 and members of the public may submit written comments until July 12. Then Bunting will deliver her final recommendations at the July 18 meeting of the State Board of Education. In the past, the Secretary of Education has usually adopted CSAC recommendations and the state board has accepted the secretary’s findings.

Should Bunting accept CSAC's recommendations and the state board assents to her decision, the school would have until December to make substantial progress on the conditions, a timeline that is in line with the school's charter renewal application that begins this fall. Conditions can be included as part of a charter renewal.

Those conditions include:

  • Revising the board’s bylaws so that members of the Wilmington chapter of AHEPA and its affiliated organizations ((the Daughters of Penelope, Maids of Athena and Sons of Pericles) do not comprise a majority of the board.
  • Changing board nominating procedures so that members of AHEPA and its affiliates have no role in selecting non-AHEPA members of the board. Gender balance would be required in the selection of board members with AHEPA affiliations.
  • All board members, whether or not affiliated with AHEPA, would have an equal opportunity to nominate and to serve as officers of the board. A system would be devised to provide for annual election of a board president and president-elect, who would become president the following year, with the presidency rotating between board members with AHEPA affiliations and those not affiliated with AHEPA.
  • AHEPA-affiliated board members must recuse themselves from all board votes that directly impact AHEPA or its related organizations.
  • Out-of-state travel either partially or fully paid by school funds must be approved by the board before the travel occurs.
  • Odyssey must recover funds that had been improperly spent -- $91,487.69 to establish the Ithaka corporation and $1,597.59 for attendance at an AHEPA conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
  • Odyssey will undergo an investigative audit with scope of work approved by the Delaware Department of Education and the Auditor of Accounts Office at Odyssey's expense with any findings to be repaid as recommended by the Auditor of Accounts.
  • Odyssey will develop a plan to improve communication and trust between the board and the Odyssey community, including staff and families.
  • Odyssey will develop a plan to strengthen the capacity of its Citizens' Budget Oversight Committee and increase its access to information.

Details on how the audit would be conducted will not be determined until after Bunting announces her final decision on the matter. Bunting sought a state audit of the school earlier this year but Kathy McGuinness, the state auditor, declined to begin one, saying her office is short-staff and insisting that the Department of Education would have to pay for any audit it requested. The issue has been further complicated by McGuinness’s strong connections to Delaware’s Greek community and the campaign contributions she received from AHEPA members during her 2018 run for office.

State Rep. Kim Casey Williams (D-Newport), who attended Monday’s CSAC meeting, said afterwards that it would not be appropriate for McGuinness or Odyssey leaders to determine the accounting firm that would conduct the audit. Williams is a sponsor of pending legislation that would require the state auditor to audit charter schools.

“Everyone at Odyssey is passionate about the school,” Head of School Denise Parks said after the meeting. “We will continue to work with the state on these matters.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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