HARTFORD — A charter management group that runs five public schools in Connecticut refused on Wednesday to release financial details involving the abrupt departure this past weekend of its former CEO, Michael M. Sharpe.
Family Urban Schools of Excellence, or FUSE, also declined to provide a list of its employees and their salaries, arguing that it was "private information."
Sharpe, 62, resigned Saturday after he admitted that one of his academic credentials was bogus.
Sharpe, who described himself as "Dr." Sharpe for years but did not have a doctorate in education or a Ph.D., also faced questions about his decades-old criminal record and past imprisonment on embezzlement and conspiracy charges.
The charter group's board of directors said Tuesday that it will conduct an independent forensic audit "to ensure that, in light of recent events, any and all information about FUSE finances become known to the Board and such critical stakeholders as government, taxpayers, educational partners, parents, funders and others who have an interest in children's futures."
But on Wednesday, in response to questions from The Courant, FUSE said through a spokesman that it was not obligated to release salary or severance details because it is "a private, non-profit organization." Asked specifically about a severance package for Sharpe, Bob Bellafiore, a public relations firm owner who represents FUSE, said "any termination terms are also considered a private personnel matter." He later clarified that Sharpe resigned and was not fired.
Still later, Wednesday night — after The Courant published an earlier version of this story on its website saying FUSE wouldn't talk about a severance deal — Bellafiore sent an email saying that "Mr. Sharpe is not receiving and will not receive a severance." But when he was asked what that meant — such as whether the lack of a "severance" would still allow for continued fringe benefits, or a pension and other retirement benefits — Bellafiore said, "I won't be able to obtain the information you seek. I will try again tomorrow."
And so by late Wednesday night, much was still unclear, including whether the FUSE board had known about Sharpe's criminal background and false academic credential before last week's revelations in The Courant.
"Regarding the former CEO's resume, what the board knew or didn't know isn't important now," Bellafiore said in an email. "What's important now is the education of the students at schools with which FUSE is engaged. That's the focus of FUSE's team and the FUSE Board going forward."
Sharpe, himself, declined to answer Courant questions Wednesday about a possible severance package or pension that he may receive, and would not say whether he planned to continue living in one of FUSE's buildings.
Last week, Sharpe told The Courant that his FUSE salary was "about $180,000" and that he paid about $1,000 in monthly rent to live in the apartment at 852 Asylum Ave. Bellafiore said Wednesday night, "Our information is that he is moving out within the next few days." But when asked for details of the leasing arrangement — such as the amount of monthly rent, whether Sharpe had made the payments, and how long he had lived there — Bellafiore said he didn't know the answers and would need to try find out from FUSE on Thursday.
The charter organization's refusal to disclose information was questioned by both the governor's office and a key state legislator Wednesday.
"Given the recent revelations surrounding Mr. Sharpe, the release of any financial agreements with his former organization is certainly warranted," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's director of communications, Andrew Doba, said in response to Courant questions about FUSE's stance. A state Department of Education spokesman said he agreed with Doba's statement, which was emailed to The Courant.
Malloy has been a strong backer of charter schools, and in 2011 he installed Stefan Pryor, a co-founder of the Amistad Academy charter school in New Haven, as state education commissioner. Last year, he named Andrea Comer, FUSE's chief operating officer at the time, to the state Board of Education. Comer is now the chief development officer at FUSE.
Asked if Malloy would direct Pryor and the state education department to do everything they can to get the information released to the public, Doba declined to comment beyond his statement.
FUSE, the charter group created in 2012, runs three Jumoke Academy public charter schools that receive millions in state grants. The Jumoke schools have received $53 million in state taxpayer funds since 1998, according to the state education department. Such massive public funding should carry with it an obligation to be accountable to the public, and to disclose information just as a municipal board of education and school system must, said state Sen. Andrea Stillman, co-chair of the General Assembly's education committee.
If charter schools "want to be part of the public education system, then they are going to have to start by abiding by public rules and regulations — and certainly some of that is full disclosure," Stillman said in a phone interview when asked about FUSE's refusal.
Stillman said she's not a lawyer, and it's "a legal question" as to whether the charter school organization is obligated to disclose the information now. But, said Stillman, "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's performance in the Sharpe episode. "I am extremely disappointed that it appears FUSE didn't do their homework in reviewing Mr. Sharpe's background. … And if they did [check his background] and still hired him as the CEO, I would want to know why they overlooked the criminal record as well as the fact that he doesn't have his Ph.D. Employers usually do very thorough background checks, and it appears they did not."
"It's sad," she said, because Sharpe and Jumoke had appeared to do "a good job…in helping these young students to succeed. Now this is going to overshadow that."
FUSE also has state-funded contracts to manage Bridgeport's Dunbar Elementary School and Hartford's Milner Elementary School, although city school officials have notified FUSE that they are terminating the latter agreement and regaining control of Milner on July 1.
FUSE, in partnership with a local pastor, also has state approval to operate a new charter school in New Haven. For the coming 2014-15 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 response to FUSE's forensic audit, Jim Polites, a spokesman for the state education department, said in a statement late Tuesday, "Jumoke has been and is currently subject to an annual independent audit to ensure the presence of strong financial practices and policies."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun