HARTFORD — Two more top administrators have left a charter school management group in the aftermath of last weekend's resignation of its CEO, Michael Sharpe — who quit abruptly following disclosures in The Courant that he had never earned the doctorate he claimed and that he had served time in federal prison.
On Thursday, the management group called Family Urban Schools of Excellence (FUSE) also received the resignation of Chief Development Officer Andrea Comer, a veteran of Hartford politics who was appointed last year by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to the State Board of Education.
"[I]t it is with very mixed feelings that I am informing you that I will be resigning my position effective July 4, 2014," Comer wrote in a letter emailed Thursday evening to Jeff Digel, interim chairman of FUSE's board of directors.
In the letter, obtained by The Courant, Comer said she's "incredibly proud of the strides this … organization has made" — and made no mention of the group's recent public embarrassment over Sharpe. Reached by phone, she declined to comment. Comer's FUSE annual pay exceeds $100,000, but the exact amount is unknown because the group has declined to release salary figures.
Meanwhile, sources also told The Courant of the departure of still another six-figure administrator from FUSE's senior management team: Leanne Masterjoseph, FUSE's chief academic officer and the holder of a doctorate in education from UConn, has left the staff.
Masterjoseph could not be reached for comment Thursday, and FUSE would neither officially confirm her exit nor answer questions from The Courant about the circumstances.
An employee who answered the phone at FUSE, but would not provide her name, said Thursday that Masterjoseph no longer worked there. Also, Masterjoseph's Facebook page identified her as "Former Chief academic officer at Family Urban Schools of Excellence."
FUSE's silence about Masterjoseph was in keeping with its continued refusal — despite continued pressure from the governor and other officials — to provide financial details concerning Sharpe's separation from employment.
Charter schools are classified as public agencies under the state's Freedom of Information Act. Public agencies are obligated by law to supply information and documents upon request in the same way that town and city school systems must do.
Information that FUSE has declined to provide to The Courant this week includes:
•Whether Sharpe will receive a pension or other retirement benefits after leaving the top job that he said paid him $180,000 a year.
•A list of its employees and their salaries, which a public relations representative for the group said was "private information."
•Any resume that Sharpe might have submitted, which could show what FUSE's board of directors knew about his background and academic credentials when he was hired as CEO.
•Terms of a lease that Sharpe said he has for an apartment he's been living in for "about $1,000" a month at 852 Asylum Ave. in Hartford, a building owned by the Jumoke Academy charter schools organization in Hartford. Those schools are managed by FUSE.
Sharpe will be moving out of that apartment "within the next few days," FUSE's public relations representative, Robert Bellafiore, said Wednesday. When asked follow-up questions — including the exact amount of rent, and whether Sharpe had made the payments — Bellafiore said he would have to go back to FUSE to get the answers.
By the end of the day Thursday, Bellafiore, who is based in Albany, said he had no further information to offer. He also said that he would no longer be representing FUSE.
"I was there 'pro bono' as a [volunteer] stopgap to get them through the announcement of the leadership change" involving Sharpe's resignation, he said Thursday night. However, "any future media inquiries should be directed to FUSE."
FUSE, created in 2012, runs three Jumoke Academy public charter schools that receive millions in state grants. FUSE has been saying this week that it is a private organization, distinct from the actual Jumoke charter schools.
The Jumoke schools have received $53 million in state taxpayer funds since the 1998 fiscal year, and on Wednesday, the co-chairwoman of the General Assembly's education committee said that such massive public funding brings with it a duty for public accountability and disclosure.
Sen. Andrea Stillman, the co-chairwoman, said she couldn't answer the legal question of whether FUSE, as a management organization, is a "public agency" under the FOI law in the same way that actual charter schools are. But the superintendents and other administrators who manage towns' and cities' school are subject to the FOI Act, and their equivalents who run charter schools also should be, officials have been saying this week.
On Wednesday, Malloy's press secretary, Andrew Doba, said that FUSE should release information sought by The Courant: "Given the recent revelations surrounding Mr. Sharpe, the release of any financial agreements with his former organization is certainly warranted," Doba said.
Malloy reaffirmed that sentiment at a press conference on an unrelated issue Thursday at a Hartford magnet school, saying: "Given all of the circumstances, yes, I believe that they should do that. … But the State Board of Education will look at the legalities and what their contractual relationship is and I'm sure in the next few days we'll have that higher and better understanding."
Malloy has been a strong supporter of charter schools, and has installed the former co-founder of a charter school, Stefan Pryor, as commissioner of the state education department. Pryor said Thursday that "I would simply agree with the governor's statement and we'll have more to say going forward."
Leaders of public school teacher unions said that FUSE's refusal to provide information is proof that despite claims to the contrary, they do not act as "public schools" in the same way as city or town schools when it comes to public accountability.
"Charter schools are not as accountable or responsible as we are in the public school education," Melodie Peters, president of AFT-Connecticut, said after the press conference.
"I believe any money that is associated with the school should be transparent, whether a third-party operator or at the school itself," said Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the largest union for public schoolteachers. "Absolutely, I think there clearly has to be a transparency, following the public money, dealing with public education" — including a "third-party operator" such as FUSE.
He added that if such charter school managers aren't required to make information public now, like city and town school systems do, then the legislature should change the laws to require it.
That echoed Stillman's statement a day earlier that "this is something I think that the next legislature is going to have to look at in terms of the guidelines of public funds and what that entitles the public to know."
Stillman was critical of FUSE over the Sharpe episode, saying: "I am extremely disappointed that it appears FUSE didn't do their homework in reviewing Mr. Sharpe's background."
Sharpe, 62, resigned Saturday after admitting that his major academic credential was bogus. He had described himself as "Dr." Sharpe for years but did not have a doctorate in education or a Ph.D. — and he also had faced questions about his decades-old criminal record and past imprisonment on embezzlement and conspiracy charges.
On Thursday, it was revealed that Sharpe had gone beyond using "Dr." before his name — and, in a 2013 "Welcome From Our CEO" message on FUSE's website, had said that "after serving as CEO of Jumoke and obtaining my Ph.D. in Education, I find myself at the helm of an organization that could scarcely have been imagined at Jumoke's 1997 founding, yet now seems almost predestined."
A Google search, prompted by a Courant reader's comment, turned up the archived version of the online item. The FUSE website now has been wiped clean of that welcome from "Dr. Michael Sharpe" and other references to him.
FUSE also has state-funded contracts to manage Bridgeport's Dunbar Elementary School and Hartford's Milner Elementary School, although city school officials are terminating the latter agreement and regaining control of Milner on July 1.
Meanwhile, FUSE received state approval in April to operate a new charter school in New Haven, working as a partner with a local pastor. For the coming 2014-15 school year, Booker T. Washington Academy is expected to receive per-pupil funding from the state totaling $2.475 million, according to the state Department of Education.
In addition, FUSE has been selected by the state of Louisiana to run at least one charter school there starting this year.