Monday, July 21, 2014
Details of Search Warrant for Concept Schools, Horizon Science Academies and 19 schools Gulen Charter Schools
The investigators also sought documents about companies that were hired by Concept to perform work under the federal “E-Rate” program, which pays for schools to expand telecommunications and Internet access. Concept is linked to the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, and has developed strong relationships with many local politicians, including state House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). Four of Concept’s 30 publicly financed schools are in Illinois, including the 600-student Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park and two campuses that opened a year ago in the Austin and McKinley Park neighborhoods. Chicago Public Schools officials approved another two Concept schools on the South Side for the 2014-15 school year. For one of the two newest Concept sites, in Chatham, more than $528,000 in public funding was earmarked to pay rent for the coming school year to an arm of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Charles Jenkins, gave the invocation at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 swearing-in and served on Emanuel’s transition team. Work on the Chatham project stopped recently, although Ald. Howard Brookins – who initially supported the new school in his 21st Ward – said Jenkins told him federal authorities were probing an outside vendor of the charter network and “not investigating Concept itself.” The federal documents obtained by the Sun-Times, however, reveal that the FBI is taking a close look at the operations of Concept. Federal law enforcement authorities in Cleveland, who are leading the probe, sent a grand-jury subpoena to Concept on May 30. The subpoena gave the charter chain’s administrators until June 17 to provide a long list of records. Concept did not receive the full time to turn over the records. Instead, shortly after 2 p.m. on June 4, a federal judge in Chicago approved three warrants to raid the charter network’s headquarters at 2250 E. Devon in the O’Hare Lake Office Complex. Later that day, after normal business hours, agents arrived at the office park in Des Plaines where Concept has three suites. The warrant gave agents the right to take any documents relating to Concept’s involvement in the E-Rate program as well as “all bank records,” “all general ledgers,” “all calendars,” “all documents related to employee travel” and “all telephone records, telephone lists and contact lists.” At 9:29 p.m. on June 4, a Concept executive gave the key to a storage unit on Mannheim Road in Des Plaines to FBI agent Brian Murphy. From the storage unit, the agent seized “48 boxes of vendor records, business records and documents,” records show. According to court records, investigators also were looking to take every record related to 13 Concept employees and companies. They included Duman, the current Concept president; chief information officer Huseyin Ulker, and Ertekin, who founded the charter chain in Ohio in the late 1990s. He now works in the United Arab Emirates, according to his online LinkedIn profile. The warrant goes on to specify that the federal agents wanted “all personnel documents for Huseyin Ulker and Sedat Duman, including but not limited to documents reflecting their compensation packages.” Among contractors mentioned in the warrant were: •Advanced Solutions for Education of Schaumburg and company founder Ozgur Balsoy, who used to be administrator of a Concept-run school in Columbus, Ohio. The company was the consultant to Concept on applications for E-Rate funding, according to the federal program’s records. •Arlington Heights-based Core Group Inc. and its president Ertugrul Gurbuz. Core is described in federal records as performing much of the work for Concept under the E-Rate program. •Signature Maker Inc. of Hoffman Estates and president Ergun Koyuncu. •Cambridge Technologies of Chesterland, Ohio and owner Stephen Draviam. Balsoy and Koyuncu declined to comment Monday, Gurbuz did not return calls, and Draviam said he had been contacted late last year by FBI agents. He said he provided records regarding E-Rate work his company performed for Concept more than five years ago, but the agents did not indicate the target of their investigation. The federal government's guidelines for E-Rate state that schools must choose companies to do work under the program through a "competitive bidding process" that is "open and fair." Vicki Anderson, a special agent in the FBI’s office in Cleveland, declined to comment on the warrants. At the time of the June 4 raids, Anderson had said all documents related to the investigation were sealed from public view. The Sun-Times obtained the warrants and other documents from the raid in Des Plaines through a state Freedom of Information Act request to Concept. Concept officials have said they were cooperating with the investigation and would not make any further comment.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
CLEVELAND -- Bombshell allegations made against a charter school company that runs several schools right here in Northeast Ohio. As we reported in June, the FBI raided several Horizon Science Schools in this area -- and WKYC learned that the Ohio Auditor has launched a special audit into Horizon-Concept schools. This comes as former teachers went before the Ohio Board of Education today with allegations of test-tampering, sexual misconduct and racial slurs against African American students. About a month ago, we told you that the FBI raided some of our local schools-- and now more investigations. "School officials were filling in bubbles on standardized tests, they claimed that it was because students didn't fill in circles dark enough," says Matt Blair, a former teacher. The allegations today were limited to the Horizon Science Academy in Dayton. Concept Schools charter chain runs 19 schools in Ohio, all will be part of a special audit by the Ohio Auditor's office. Teachers said they witnessed racial slurs, sexual activity among students that wasn't reported to parents and unsafe building conditions. The Ohio Department of Education has also said it will investigate the complaints. No Cleveland schools were implicated in the testimony today. Horizon Science Schools in Cleveland have had strong academic records even being named Blue Ribbon Sch
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Ex Horizon Teachers, parents and pupils discuss test cheating, sexual scandal and more with Ohio Board of Education
http://www.abc22now.com/shared/news/top-stories/stories/wkef_vid_21200.shtml Horizon Charter Schools Under Investigation DAYTON/COLUMBUS -- A federal investigation is underway concerning multiple instances of misconduct at 19 Horizon Science Academy charter schools in Ohio. Three of the schools being investigated are located in Dayton. A group of teachers from Horizon Science Academy Dayton High School attended the Ohio Board of Education meeting Tuesday, to share testimony about their allegations of school misconduct. "The stuff that went on here was so outrageous and absolutely unfair," said former Horizon teacher Kellie Kochensperger in an interview after the public hearing portion of the board meeting, "Unprofessional and completely beyond anything I thought a public school should have happening." "Some of the teachers here have used racial slurs when describing students," added Richard Storrick, who worked for the Dayton High School until June of 2013. The allegations don't stop at racial slurs, Kochensperger says she testified about sexual misconduct that she believes the administration hid from parents. "Oral sex, that took place outside of the cultural festival, an after school activity," Kochensperger said. She said the incident took place while she was working at the school, with a group of 6th and 8th grade students. Other students are alleged to have watched, and the incident was recorded on school surveillance cameras. Kochensperger says none of this was reported to parents, who were told that students were suspended for being out of school boundaries. "It's a publicly funded school, so everybody's tax dollars are funding everything we just talked about," Storrick vented. Teachers also allege they were instructed to improperly conduct state standardized tests, and not ask questions about it. "It says here in the book that they're supposed to have calculators," Kochensperger said about a conversation she had with a superior administrator during a testing day, "and he told me they don't need them, it's a science test not a math test." "With every bone in my body I thought if I filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Education, if I filed a civil rights suit, if I did anything that would get back to [the Horizon] director I would be terminated and I would lose my job," said Storrick about the allegations of intimidation presented to the State Education Board. He added that's why the group of teachers who testified waited until they had found other teaching jobs to do so. About the state meeting today, board member Deborah Cain said, "We as a state board and as a department of education have got to get to the bottom of this. Every allegation must be investigated to its fullest." "Knowing that the kids are being cheated in the long run," Kochensperger said with frustration, "I'm very passionate about students in Ohio deserving better." Horizon Science Academy Dayton and it's parent company Concept Charter Schools did not respond to requests for comment on the investigation.
Saturday, July 12, 2014
A new charter school won’t open as planned next month in a South Side building owned by a politically connected pastor’s church because of a federal investigation involving charter operator Concept Schools, a consultant for the project said Thursday.
“The project is on hold,” Hermene Hartman said, citing the “legal difficulties.”
But Concept officials said they “are moving forward with our plan to open a new school and exploring which location at this point makes the most sense for the coming school year.”
In January, Chicago Public Schools officials approved the proposed Concept school at 8522 S. Lafayette Ave. in Chatham.
According to plans submitted by Concept, more than $528,000 in CPS funding for the school was to go toward rent for the 2014-15 school year to the landlord, an arm of Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. The Rev. Charles Jenkins, Fellowship’s pastor, gave the invocation at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 swearing-in and served on Emanuel’s transition team.
Last month, the FBI and two other federal agencies raided Concept’s Des Plaines headquarters and 19 of its charter schools in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, including Concept’s Chicago Math and Science Academy in Rogers Park.
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), who had been a supporter of the proposed Concept school on South Lafayette, said Thursday he has withdrawn his backing for now “pending the outcome of the federal investigation.”
“There needs to be some clarification that they’re not investigating Concept itself, that it’s just a vendor, as I’ve been led to believe” by Jenkins, Brookins said.
He said 250 kids are signed up for the school.
FBI officials have said the investigation involves an unspecified “ongoing white-collar criminal matter.”
Chicago school officials have given permission for Concept to open another new school for the coming school year, on the Southwest Side, and are considering plans to increase enrollment at the Concept school in Rogers Park.
CPS spokesman Joel Hood said: “We continue to monitor the situation with Concept.”
Horizon Science Academy (Concept Schools) Board refuses to answer questions about citizenship or leadership
The names of school board members at Ohio’s publicly funded Horizon and Noble charter schools are unlike those on traditional public school boards.
Take, for example, the board members at the Denison Horizon Science Academy elementary school in Cleveland: Mehmet Malcok, Hamiyet Unal, Sevda Gousseinova, Erhan Ararat and Basak Kacar Khamush.
Up the chain of command, the names are similar.
The superintendent of the North Ohio Regional Office is Murat Efe. He has identified himself as an employee of Concept Schools, a management firm in suburban Chicago.
The media contact at headquarters is vice president Salim Ucan, according to the school’s website. The head of the company is Sedat Duman.
Many of the board members and employees are new to the United States, as the company is an aggressive importer of Turkish labor. Some board members — unlike traditional public school board members who cannot be elected without being registered voters — aren’t U.S. citizens, let alone registered voters.
Ohio’s 17 Horizon and two Noble schools are considered “public” charters. Funding for operations is transferred from the school district where students would normally attend to each charter school’s board, which pays Concept for management services.
Last school year, Ohio Horizon and Noble Academies enrolled 6,719 students and received $49,775,180 in public dollars. Schools are in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Euclid, Toledo and Youngstown.
The News Outlet, a student journalism lab headquartered at Youngstown State University that includes the University of Akron and Cuyahoga Community College, has been collaborating with the Beacon Journal in an exploration of Ohio school choice.
As part of the project, News Outlet interns reached out to 20 board members at Concept schools in Northeast Ohio.
The goal was to learn more about the board members and how the boards operate.
Of the 20 board members — many of whom are doctors or college educators — 14 did not respond to emails or phone calls, or declined to be interviewed. Four provided partial responses and only two answered all questions.
The list of questions included citizenship, how they came to be on the board, if they have children attending these charter schools and their experiences with the management company.
One board member was unaware that her school, Horizon Science Academy Youngstown, employed a management company.
“Who is the management company?” two-year board member Fatma Sahin Yildiz asked, repeating a question posed by a News Outlet reporter, who followed with: “For Horizon, do you know who your management company is?”
“For Horizon, I don’t know,” answered Yildiz, who works in a hospital and has been in the U.S. for six years on a green card, which provides permanent residency for a noncitizen.
Three people returned with the same email response: Abdurrahman Arslanyilmaz of Youngstown, president of Horizon Youngstown; Takhar Kasumov of Mayfield Heights, president of Horizon Cleveland High and Cleveland Middle, and member of Denison Middle and Noble Academy Cleveland; and Yilmaz Sozer of Akron, president of Horizon Denison Middle and Noble Academy Cleveland.
Arslanyilmaz is an assistant professor of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) College at Youngstown State University. Kasumov is an assistant professor at Lerner College of Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Sozer is an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Akron.
“Horizon Science Academies and Concept Schools were initiated by a few Turkish-American educators who wanted to contribute, in their own capacity and expertise, to the solution of the problem that U.S. was falling behind in STEM education,” the statement reads. “Though an admittedly small group, Turkish Americans are like many other immigrant groups — they come from different backgrounds, but share a common experience and a common goal of contributing to their communities.”
Kasumov expounded on the Turkish connection in a phone interview.
“Basically, the people in the charter management company are from Turkey,” he said. “They have hired most teachers coming from Turkey or Central Asia because science, math dedication, I would say, is much higher than here in average American schools. And there is a need for them here to be.”
The same board members who sent prepared statements said they found some questions to be too personal, including those about their experiences on the board.
“I don’t think I am going to be able to answer those questions on personal issues. I can answer how long I’ve been on the board. My experience, still, that’s a personal question as well,” said Arslanyilmaz.
Sozer also declined.
“Actually, I am not allowed to talk because ... . The questions that you listed related to my preferences, my background or so, those are really personal questions,” Sozer explained. “I checked with the lawyer — I understand you are doing your job, but I don’t want to do an interview right now. I will send you an email.”
Questions about who asked them to be on the boards and what they would be expected to do were referred to the school Code of Regulations, which “explains how board members are recruited and elected, and what governance training they receive.”
Asked about their relationship with Concept Schools and whether the company played a role in selecting board members, they referred to the management contract with Concept. The IRS considers this an important question in determining whether a charter school qualifies as a nonprofit organization.
Asked to discuss what they believed to be the goal of the schools, they provided the mission statement.
Questions about whether they had children, if so, how many and what type of school they attended — for example, do any send their children to Horizon schools — were deemed to be “too personal.”
Mum on citizenship
Asked whether he has considered U.S. citizenship, Sozer — who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years — replied: “Most of the board members are either U.S. citizen or permanent resident who are in the process of getting U.S. citizenship.”
Kasumov, who has been in the U.S. for 17 years, deleted the question.
Arslanyilmaz said he has been in the U.S. for 14 years but declined to answer the citizenship question. “I do not feel comfortable answering this personal question,” he wrote.
Basak Kacar Khamush, a board member for Horizon Cleveland Elementary and Denison Elementary, sent an email saying: “Thank you for your interest in our schools. Please direct all inquiries about our school and board to Dr. Mehmet Malcok, board president. Please know that we take our role as a public board member seriously and we take public records requests and media inquiries in the friendliest and most professional manner. Please respect our policies and contact the person I have referred you to, and thank you.”
Ahmet Bahadir Ergin of Horizon Science Academy Lorain was unwilling to be interviewed over the phone or answer emailed questions until he spoke with “the school manager.” He declined to provide the name and phone number of that school manager when asked.
“Well, I don’t think I would like to give numbers of people ... especially on the phone. I am uncomfortable. I really don’t know your identity. I don’t know who you are. I have a tendency not to believe. I look at hard solid evidence,” said Ergin.
Ergin is an internal medicine resident at Fairview Hospital in Cleveland.
Kasumov, however, said board members have the option to speak with the media.
“Certainly. Everyone is free to say what they have to say. There are no rules that say not to answer any questions. No. There is nothing. Contact them directly,” he said.
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort among the Youngstown State University journalism program, the University of Akron, Cuyahoga Community College and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and the Vindicator (Youngstown), the Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).
Monday, July 7, 2014
Gulen Horizon Science Academys (Concept Schools) under fire for hiring Turkish immigrants to displace American Teachers
A chain of 19 publicly funded Ohio charter schools, founded by Turkish immigrants, is taking the position that the United States lacks a qualified pool of math and science teachers and is importing perhaps hundreds of Turks to fill the void.
The schools are run almost exclusively by persons of Turkish heritage, some of whom are not U.S. citizens — a new twist in Ohio’s controversial charter-school movement.
In addition, the Horizon and Noble academies, run by Chicago-based Concept Schools, are related through membership, fundraisers and political giving to the nonprofit Niagara Foundation, which provides trips to Turkey for state, local and federal lawmakers.
Among those touring Turkey has been State Rep. Cliff Rosenberger, a Clarksville Republican on the powerful finance and appropriations committee and considered to be a leading candidate for House speaker next year. He was joined on the trip by at least four other state legislators and local government leaders from his area in southwest Ohio.
There have been other trips from Ohio, and in Illinois, there are allegations that state officials who took trips showed favoritism in disbursing public dollars to Concept schools.
Public records show that since late 2009, the U.S. Department of Labor has allowed 19 of these schools in Ohio to hire 325 educators almost exclusively from Turkey.
However, as early as 2002, state audits found thousands of public dollars “illegally expended” to finance the U.S. citizenship process for Turkish employees — some fresh out of college with no classroom experience and broken English. Help with legal and immigration fees also extended to their children and families, including the spouses of directors.
The auditor also cited suspect wire transfers, totaling $36,000, and checks made out to “cash” to repay personal loans issued by individuals in Istanbul, Turkey.
Three of the Ohio schools have been visited by the FBI as part of a multistate probe. The agency said it is part of a white-collar criminal investigation.
Federal agents have not disclosed details, only that the investigation originated in Cleveland, has spread to Indiana and Illinois, and may or may not be connected to previous investigations at related schools in Baton Rouge, La., and Philadelphia.
Last school year, these Ohio charter schools, called Horizon and Noble Academies, received nearly $50 million in public funding transferred from local school districts where students otherwise would have attended.
At $50 million, Concept is among the larger players in Ohio’s charter-school movement, totaling $914 million last year. For years, charter schools have come under fire for poor academic performance and questionable finances.
Concept, founded in suburban Chicago by Turkish men, manages the Ohio charter schools and 11 others in five Midwest states. Its status as a for-profit or nonprofit under IRS standards is not clear.
Murat Efe oversees Concept operations in northern Ohio. His boss, Sedat Duman, controls the company from Des Plaines, Ill.
Former CEOs of Concept schools control Breeze Inc., a real estate company that owns many of the school buildings. As landlords, they collect rent from the publicly funded charter schools. Breeze shares office space with Concept in a building northwest of Chicago.
A Beacon Journal interview scheduled for June 27 with Efe and Salim Ucan, vice president of the company, was canceled by Concept less than a half-hour before it was to occur.
The Beacon Journal also requested records June 12 seeking taxpayer-funded contracts, emails discussing recent FBI investigations and visa applications filed by the schools.
The records were requested of three Concept administrators and 18 school board members.
Only three, all board members, acknowledged that they received the request. One forwarded it to a principal. The other two passed it along to Efe, who has not responded to repeated attempts to reschedule an interview.
In addition, The News Outlet, a student journalism lab headquartered at Youngstown State University, conducted a survey this spring of 20 school board members at Horizon and Noble academies in Northeast Ohio. Few answers were received.
Better than average
Last school year, Ohio’s Turkish-run schools — which offer the Turkish language and promote themselves as specialized in math and science — enrolled more than 6,700 students.
In Cleveland alone, $12 million was transferred from the municipal school district to Concept schools. Academies also exist in Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Euclid, Toledo and Youngstown.
According to the Ohio Department of Education, the academies’ performance on state tests varies widely from school to school and year to year. In 2013, 12 received D’s, four C’s and three B’s.
Those scores are better than the average Ohio charter school and often higher than most city school districts where they are located, although some have lower graduation rates.
In 2012, Secretary of State John Husted visited Horizon Academies in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, then another in Dayton a year later. In the weeks before and after each visit, people who identified themselves as with Horizon, Concept, Noble or Turkish interests donated $5,400 into Husted’s campaign fund.
A spokesman for Husted said the “donations were really received through fundraising events that were publicized and open to the public” and that the secretary “had no conversations” with donors.
Husted, who has been a leading advocate of charter schools for a decade, is pictured on many Concept school websites, smiling with officials and children.
State Rep. Cliff Rosenberger, who could be the next Ohio House speaker, also received $1,850 in 2012.
Three months earlier, Rosenberger joined two other House Republicans and two local officials for a trip to Turkey. The trip, focused on economic development, was paid for by the Niagara Foundation, which also has sponsored dinner at the state capital.
Rosenberger’s office did not answer Beacon Journal requests for information.
Between the fall of 2012 and 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, the 19 Ohio charter schools sought to import 97 Turkish teachers.
In contrast, Ohio’s public school districts (which enroll roughly 270 times more students) looked overseas only 11 times. More than half of the requests, including one filed by Akron Public Schools, sought Mandarin or Chinese teachers — languages that economists say are in high demand.
Concept Schools, however, pursued visas for 13 Turkish language teachers that year.
To put the hiring practice in perspective, records show that Horizon and Noble academies have attempted to import as many teachers in four years as it would take to staff the state’s largest public high school, with more than 100 teachers to spare.
Former employees allege that Turkish employees generally are paid more than U.S.-born teachers, then asked to contribute as much as 40 percent of their pay to an Islam-based religious movement known as Hizmet that supports interfaith dialog.
The movement is led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
A Beacon Journal review of visa applications indicates that most teachers recruited from Turkey would receive a starting salary of more than $40,000. That’s higher than the salaries of many existing employees whose names do not reflect Middle Eastern heritage, according to pay data kept by the state treasurer’s office.
And, “They’re not qualified,” said Mary Addi, a former teacher at a Horizon middle school in Cleveland.
One state audit supported her contention by finding as many as 20 percent of teachers at one school were not licensed, and nearly half of all treasurers at 19 schools lacked proper credentials.
“American taxpayers are just so ambivalent about all this. Do they know they are paying for all this?” said Addi, whose husband, Mustafa Emanet, has worked for the schools.
“I worked for them. I was one of them,” he said, saying he and his wife were fired then rehired multiple times. Emanet said he was asked to return 40 percent of his salary, which started at $44,000 in 2006.
“They know the system here and they use the system here,” Emanet said.
State audits also show reimbursement to high-level employees for their pursuit of MBA degrees, along with credit card purchases for alcohol, shampoo, Red Bull and other non-school-related goods.
Now, the Ohio Department of Education is probing allegations that grades and attendance records have been tampered. The matter, first investigated in 2012, has been reopened after the department was publicly criticized for taking it easy on the school’s independent sponsor, which in Ohio handles academic and fiscal oversight.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.