Special counsel report finds problems at Mason Classical Academy
What is going on behind closed doors at Mason Classical Academy?
A report from the School District of Collier County special counsel found a lack of financial oversight, Sunshine Law violations and mismanagement by some administrators.
“We listened to a lot of people and those people included parents, faculty members,” Fishbane said.
Now, Special Counsel Jon Fishbane has called for two of the board members for the charter school to resign. His report comes after MCA’s former Treasurer Joe Baird complained to the state.
“All they wanted was to hide everything from me,” Baird said.
The state told the School District of Collier County to take a closer look.
“When things got bad enough,” Baird said, “that’s when I looked at the situation and I said, ‘I have to do something.'”
Fishbane’s report looks at past emails, meetings and information from witnesses accusing the academy of breaking its charter contract by not having a finance committee in place since 2015, along with the administration of mistreating parents and students.
Fishbane recommends training, a change in leadership and a review of the board of operations, rather than closing the school. Baird agrees, telling WINK News charter schools need to be better held accountable.
“You can’t look away,” Fishbane said. “They have to be addressed and something needs to happen.”
Mason Classical Academy sent the following in response to a statement:
Dear Mason Classical Academy Community,
Mason Classical Academy has been an amazing success story since it first opened its doors in 2014. The entire team of students, parents, teachers, staff and board of directors are to be commended for their perseverance and willingness to learn the true, do the good and love the beautiful. As with any worthwhile achievement, the journey has not been without its challenges. There were many uphill battles, especially in the beginning, but the most incredible moment occurred in May of 2014 when we were registering hundreds of students at Sports Club. School was scheduled to begin in mid-August, and we were registering students without a facility. That’s right, we were months away from the first day of school and we had not yet secured an actual building to hold classes. We had no idea there would be so many parents willing to take that leap of faith with us. The school was basically just an idea at that point. What an astounding testament to the power of a parent’s desire for the absolute best for their child.
As you may know, there have been many other challenges for the school since its opening. The district tried to non-renew our charter in 2017 after a fake news story appeared in the paper about low interest loan offers being refused – which never happened. No follow up story was ever published. There were hoaxes in the news concerning potty training accidents – which never happened. No follow up story was ever aired. A Department of Children and Family Services investigation into alleged misconduct story appeared in the local paper – no misconduct was uncovered. No follow up story was ever published.
Corrupt board members have come and gone. One had to resign after it was discovered that he was profiting from loans that the school took from a trust he was invested in. Another resigned under a cloud of suspicion that he may have violated Sunshine Laws during his attempt to unseat the board chair with the illegal and unethical promise of low interest loans in exchange for the chair’s resignation.
In June 2018, the Florida Department of Education forwarded a complaint that they received from a former Mason Classical Academy (MCA) parent to Collier County Public Schools (CCPS). Soon after receiving the complaint, CCPS attorney, Jon Fishbane, began compiling complaints about the school and its leaders.
On October 5, 2018, MCA first learned of Mr. Fishbane’s efforts through a Naples Daily News article. The article states, in part: “Jennifer Kupiec, spokeswoman for Collier schools, said in an email that the district is ‘carefully’ looking into Baird’s concerns but did not provide more details about how the investigation is being conducted.”
On multiple occasions, between October 2018 and April 2019, the MCA board and its attorney, Shawn Arnold, requested updates on the progress of the Fishbane investigation. Having full knowledge of the allegations contained in the former parent’s complaint, the MCA board hired an outside accounting firm, McCrady and Associates, to examine the school’s finances. The firm found no evidence of any financial mismanagement.
In April 2019, Mr. Fishbane, through MCA’s attorney, informed the school that he was not accepting any documentation from MCA “unless it is extraordinary.” Mr. Fishbane also informed MCA that he would be completing his investigation “in three weeks.” By this time, Mr. Fishbane had not interviewed a single MCA employee or board member.
Mr. Fishbane intended to release his report without visiting the school, without interviewing any employees or board members or inspecting any records in the school’s possession. When pressed on the merits of an investigation absent the foregoing components, Mr. Fishbane agreed to interview one employee, David Hull. None of Mr. Hull’s statements were included in Mr. Fishbane’s June 3, 2019 report to the CCPS board. Nor were any of the subjects addressed in the report discussed during Mr. Hull’s interview. By any fair measure, none of the subjects of Mr. Fishbane’s investigation have been afforded due process. Whether you are supportive of the leadership at MCA or not, certainly all Americans can agree that we should be afforded due process when being accused of wrongdoing.
Mr. Fishbane’s Report to the CCPS Board
Mr. Fishbane’s unredacted report to the CCPS board was emailed to the MCA board and its attorney on June 3, 2019. The report was summarized at the June 4, 2019 CCPS board meeting during Mr. Fishbane’s closing comments. The redacted report, which Mr. Fishbane committed to produce at the June 4thCCPS board meeting, has not yet been posted. It is alarming that the unredacted version was released by the district, as it contains personally identifiable student data, which is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974.
Mr. Fishbane’s report contains numerous allegations against the MCA board and its principal. It also includes several recommendations for remediation, including the removal of the school’s board and principal. To date, CCPS has not made any demands of or made any recommendations to the MCA board. Only the CCPS board can make demands of or recommendations to the MCA board. Mr. Fishbane’s report, including its conclusions and recommendations, are merely his report to the CCPS board. The CCPS board, as they plainly admitted during their June 4thmeeting, does not have the authority to demand the removal or inclusion of any charter school board member or principal.
On June 6, 2019, in response to Mr. Fishbane’s allegations, Hillsdale College sent aletter to the MCA board. Prior to speaking with anyone at MCA about the report, the college’s new provost wrote that he agreed with Mr. Fishbane’s recommendations and demanded that MCA comply, or face losing its contractual relationship with the school. Per MCA’s contract with Hillsdale, they must give prior written notice to the MCA board 60 days prior to terminating its contractual agreement with MCA. But we fully intend to restore our relationship with the college.
At this time, Hillsdale is not yet aware that Mr. Fishbane’s investigation lacked any testimony from the accused and sought no documentation from the school. We believe Hillsdale’s newly installed provost, Chris VanOrman, was simply caught off guard, had no knowledge of the political atmosphere in Collier County, and had a knee-jerk reaction to Mr. Fishbane’s report. The MCA board knows Hillsdale fully supports the U.S. Constitution and will continue to pursue truth and defend liberty.
It should also be noted that the Hillsdale letter was only sent to the MCA board, Mr. Adam Miller (FDOE) and Mr. Fishbane. It is alarming that this letter was leaked to the public before MCA had an opportunity to talk with Hillsdale.
MCA Board Meeting
The board chair, Kelly Lichter, was out of the country on vacation when the report was released and immediately scheduled a Special Board Meeting for June 8, 2019 at 12:00 pm to discuss what actions the MCA board should take. At that meeting, the board members heard public comment, and addressed the Fishbane report and the letter from Hillsdale College by directing Shawn Arnold to draft a response to both parties.
The MCA Board’s Official Response
The Mason Classical Academy governing board is in receipt of Mr. Fishbane’s report to the Collier County Public School board. The governing board is disturbed and astounded by Mr. Fishbane’s allegations and takes them very seriously. However, we are not prepared to act on Mr. Fishbane’s recommendations at this time. If the governing board ever succumbs to the “recommendations” of a corrupt system, MCA will cease to exist and the new “district approved” board will fundamentally change every aspect of the school.
As MCA’s sponsor and an agency that has retained a substantial percentage of the school’s annual revenue for administrative and educational services since 2014, we are somewhat dismayed that CCPS has nevercommunicated any of the concerns alleged in Mr. Fishbane’s June 3rdreport. For five years we have been under the district’s watchful eye as a high performing charter school. At no time during the school’s existence has the district ever expressed any of the concerns or legal allegations contained in Mr. Fishbane’s report.
Nonetheless, due to the seriousness of Mr. Fishbane’s allegations and MCA’s commitment to pursuing truth, the governing board has a right and responsibility to investigate these allegations. We must do what is in the best interest of the school and we owe it to the community to expose the truth, whatever that may be. Towards that end, the governing board has voted to hire an investigative law firm to examine the contents of the report. This firm will conduct a thorough, independent, unbiased and proper investigation into every allegation contained in the Fishbane report.
Once this process is complete, a comprehensive report will be provided to the parents of MCA, CCPS and Hillsdale College. MCA will also host a public meeting where the law firm will present their findings to the parents and general public. A question and answer session will follow the presentation of this independent investigation. The meeting will be video recorded and made available online as well.
Finally, allowing a school district to dictate who cannotand who canserve or work for a privately governed charter school is a precedent that this governing board is unwilling to set. MCA’s governing board believes in the fundamental principle of due process – a right endowed to us by our creator and enumerated in the U.S. Constitution’s 5thand 14thamendment.
Please know that the continued success of Mason Classical Academy is of paramount importance to the governing board, and we will do everything within our power and authority to protect the school’s mission and viability. Thank you for your continued prayers and support.
Board of Directors
Mason Classical Academy
We also talked with Hillsdale College in Michigan, which supports Mason Classical Academy. It said no comment.