Posted on Tue, Mar. 31, 2010

City Controller questions payments to charter-school accountant

By Martha Woodall

INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

An accountant was paid $700,561 over four years by three city charter schools and claimed to have worked more than 365 days in each year, City Controller Alan Butkovitz disclosed yesterday.

In addition, the accountant, Rhonda Sharif, collected $101,587 in 2008 for "unspecified" credit-card expenses from one of the schools, and authorized paying thousands of dollars for conferences and staff retreats but could provide no documentation for the expenses, Butkovitz said.

"These findings raise very troubling questions and serious concerns about oversight and financial accountability," Butkovitz said.

Charters, he said, operate under fewer rules than traditional public schools, "but in the end, these are taxpayers' dollars."

Records show that Sharif was the business manager of the Harambee Institute of Science and Technology Charter School in West Philadelphia at the same time she held that position at the Khepera Charter School in West Mount Airy and served as the chief financial officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School at 447 N. Broad St.

Butkovitz said his office began examining operations of these and 10 other city charter schools and the School District's oversight of them in 2009 after The Inquirer reported allegations of financial mismanagement and a widening federal criminal probe of area charter schools.

Butkovitz said he decided to release the findings related to Harambee after weekend news reports that a nightclub was operating in the school building on weekend nights.

Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said yesterday that she had not received a response to a letter that informed the school that a nightclub cannot operate in the school building. Ackerman said a district team would visit the school today and she might go there on Monday, the first day students return from spring break.

"We're not going to tolerate the school's staying open if these conditions are what people say they are," Ackerman said.

She said she had spoken to Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak about the school. He offered to send investigators to help district workers, Ackerman said.

"We're going to make this right for children," the superintendent said.

The controller's findings will be investigated, she said.

John F. Downs, the district's inspector general, said his office had been investigating Harambee since 2009, when staffers learned the school was behind on its payments to the Public School Employees' Retirement System.

He said state pension officials have told the district that Harambee remains $220,000 in arrears.

Downs said his office was aware of Sharif's ties to the three charters and was continuing to investigate allegations of fraud and theft it had received about the charters' operations.

Butkovitz said his office's full report on charter schools, including recommendations for tightening the state's 1997 charter-school law, would be made public within two weeks.

After the state charter law was changed in July 2008 to bar charter administrators from being paid by more than one school, Sharif was employed solely by Mathematics, Civics and Sciences. In apparent violation of the law, she continued to work as a consultant and provided business services for a time to Harambee and Khepera, Butkovitz said.

The controller's investigation also found that Sharif's husband's construction company - Str8-Hand Construction Inc. - had received $7.44 million in construction and maintenance contracts with the three charter schools.

Neither Sharif nor her husband, Shamsud-Din Sharif, returned phone calls for comment yesterday.

Butkovitz said he would share his findings with the School District and would continue to share them with the U.S. Attorney's Office, which has been investigating area charter schools since May 2008.

Veronica Joyner, chief executive and founder of Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School, confirmed yesterday that Rhonda Sharif had received a federal subpoena last week to supply five years of financial records from her charter school.

The school has become at least the seventh area charter to be drawn into the widening federal probe.

Joyner said she believes the subpoena is tied to the inquiry into Rhonda Sharif.

Joyner praised Rhonda Sharif for doing "an excellent job. We have done nothing wrong, and we will be cooperating."

She acknowledged that when her school was unable to document $536,093 in expenses for travel and conferences, the board voted on Nov. 11, 2009, to approve "all prior expenditures."

Officials from Harambee and Khepera did not return calls seeking comment.

John J. Pease, an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia who is overseeing the federal charter investigations, said he had received Butkovitz's report. He said he could not comment on the subpoena or any investigations.

A former board president and a former chief executive officer of Philadelphia Academy Charter School are serving federal prison sentences after pleading guilty to fraud charges.

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or at martha.woodall@phillynews.com

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