OAKLAND -- Oakland's embattled American Indian Model Schools may have pulled back from the brink of closure by cutting ties with the controversial founder Ben Chavis, who was accused of improperly channeling millions of dollars to himself and his wife.
The AIM Schools board gave Chavis notice on Jan. 12 that he could no longer have a role in running the institution, a demand made by district officials who concluded last fall that the organization failed to protect against corrupt fiscal practices.
The final decision to revoke the charter is in the hands of the Oakland school board, which will make a decision on March 20.
The AIM Schools board appointed former OUSD trustee Sylvester Hodges as interim director.
Chavis is forbidden from contacting faculty or staff except as a parent of children enrolled in the award-winning but controversial institution. All contracts involving Chavis have been suspended or eliminated. However, he still owns the 171 19th Street building, which houses one of three AIM Schools.
Now the board is scrambling to find alternative locations.
"This is not an easy task," AIM Schools Trustee Toni Cook said Wednesday.
The investigation began in response to a whistle-blower complaint of fraud. State auditors spent months examining the charter organization's records. A report issued in June cited evidence that Chavis and and his wife, Marsha Amador used public funds for the schools to enrich themselves.
Auditors found $3.8 million in questionable expenditures, rife with conflicts of interest, from construction contracts and lease agreements to mandatory summer programs going to Chavis' companies -- all while Amador handled the books. At one point, Chavis served on the governing board while he was director.
Alameda County superintendent of schools Sheila Jordan forwarded the case to the District Attorney's Office, which is still reviewing it.
OUSD trustees gave the organization 60 days to remedy the problems -- tightening its oversight, instituting new conflict-of-interest enforcement, and assuring the board that Chavis and Amador would be separated from "all aspects of AIMS operations."
The AIM Schools board finally responded in January.
Communication with OUSD officials had broken down, said Cook, who became board president in January. She joined the board in October 2012.
Chavis' methods have long been controversial. But the school's test scores rank among the highest in the district and parents and pupils have vehemently defended the schools.
"If the founder did do something wrong I beg you do not sacrifice this school," Isha Edgerly, a mother of a seventh grade AIMS student told trustees Wednesday during an emotional hearing. "Go after him, but let our school be."