May 5, 2013; Newark Star-Ledger

As reporter Jessica Calefati at the Star-Ledger notes, parents send kids to charters like the Adelaide L. Sanford facility, located in a former church in Newark, New Jersey, because of their apprehensions about the poor quality of education their kids will get elsewhere in the Newark public school system. In this case, they would have done hugely better trusting the public schools to do their job.

The elements of the story would be horrifying enough if this were some new charter school that needed to be shut down, but the Adelaide L. Sanford Charter School is in its sixth year of operation. The shortages of textbooks, the terrible conditions, and the out-of-control behavior of the kids and teachers would be sufficient to declare this an educational failure, but the Star-Ledger article found “a faltering institution that provides bare-bones learning facilities while using millions of dollars in state and federal aid, bolstering a real estate fiefdom controlled by the school’s founder, Fredrica Bey.”

Among the charges:

  • “hugely inflated rental payments [by the school] to Women in Support of the Million Man March (WISOMMM), a community group Bey founded, for space the school doesn’t use…[what one attorney] who specializes in nonprofit law said the arrangement smacks of a ‘sham transaction.’”
  • “using a possibly invalid school lease as the bedrock document to obtain an $8.27 million loan,” an incident referred to the Division of Criminal Justice
  • “refusing to comply with [state] regulations, turn over records or eliminate clear conflicts of interest, chiefly the dual roles Bey held as executive director of both the school and her group…WISOMMM”
  • desperate pleas from officials at the school itself, including the principal and the business administrator, asking the state’s Education Department to intervene at Adelaide Sanford
  • charges from the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleging violations of the False Claims Act, in that “Bey took $345,325 in federal grant money earmarked for programs to keep ‘at-risk’ youths off the streets and instead used much of it to pay WISOMMM’s bills, then falsely reported how the money was spent”

If you’re starting to wonder how Bey has been able to keep this going for six years without having education officials padlock the place and put the kids into real schools, you may wish to observe her political history. Bey is a longstanding associate of former mayor Sharpe James, who calls her “a legend…a hero…a role model.” With WISOMMM’s receiving $3.5 million in Community Development Block Grant funds from 1999 to Sharpe James’s leaving office in 2006, she was a big campaigner for James’s various electoral runs. Not quite as well known is her involvement as the front person for James’s former mistress, Tamika Riley, to buy city-owned properties and flip them at James’s direction for hundreds of thousands in profits. Although Bey got her share of the profits in the process, she didn’t go to jail, unlike her friend James and his friend Riley. (James has said that he and Bey have since had a “falling out.”)

Beyond James, Bey has a legion of supporters. Rev. David Jefferson, Sr. of Newark’s Metropolitan Baptist Church “called the work of Bey and WISOMMM ‘noble’.” The former poet laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka, said that “(t)he WISOMMM people have been doing positive things in the community for 20 years…and now must be attacked and ‘bad-mouthed’ by a newspaper that is not famous for such great work.” The Nation of Islam said that the government’s fraud suit against Bey was, in the words of the article, “punishment for her support of [Minister Louis] Farrakhan, who organized the Million Man March, and as a naked grab for the sprawling James Street building, which also houses an African-American cultural center.” Farrakhan and Bey are apparently longtime friends and allies.

Regardless, it seems that the problems at Adelaide Sanford were reasonably well known, but lots of people steered clear of confrontation. Mayor Cory Booker, a huge proponent of charter schools, cut and then shut off WISOMMM’s access to CDBG funds. After providing over $485,000 in grants to Adelaide Sanford in four years, the Newark Charter School Fund cut them off in 2011. Although James was willing to talk to the Star-Ledger about Bey, Mayor Booker, city and state education officials, Adelaide Sanford principal Larry Hazzard, and Bey herself all refused to respond to questions.

Wear asbestos gloves when you read this Star-Ledger story.—Rick Cohen