, Gloucester, MA

November 29, 2012

Editorial: Charter school loan spurs new questions of lax oversight

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The state’s commissioner of education calls it “a pretty unusual transaction.”

So state ed chief Mitchell D. Chester certainly did the right thing Tuesday in calling for the state auditor to examine the makings and execution of a $75,000 personal loan granted by the head of another charter school to the Gloucester Community Arts School last year.

For while Chester and the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education frankly have larger issues to address – deciding next month on whether to allow Gloucester’s charter school to continue — the handling of this September 2011 loan raises all sorts of troubling new questions that show a frightening lack of oversight for the handling and use of taxpayers’ dollars.

On the surface, there may seem nothing wrong with then-charter school Executive Director Tony Blackman accepting the $75,000 through a three-week promissory note from Diana Lam, head of the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Brighton, to meet a short-term budgeting need. But the first catch comes with Blackman signing on and agreeing to pay Lam a $2,500 loan service fee —without any direct approval from the Board of Trustees.

The trustees — including Chairman James Caviston — say they had voted to authorize Blackman to handle “financial matters” in his role as executive director. But should that have included paying back a short-term at a rate that would have been pegged at more than 50 percent if factored out annually?

The greatest questions surrounding this debacle swirl around Lam’s role in the exchange. In essence, we have a head of a Massachusetts public, independent school turning a personal profit from another public, independent school — with the money covering her profit drawn from a public school, and thus taxpayers. Then there’s Lam’s background – and the fact that has personally profited off taxpayers’ dollars in the past. In that case, she was ousted from her post as deputy chancellor of New York City’s school system in 2004 for improperly helping her husband, Peter Plattes, land a job with the school district as a regional instructional specialist.

Chester at least noted that, had officials known of Lam’s ties to the GCACS loan, the state would not have had her take part in the October site review of the Gloucester school. To be fair, Chester is also right to note that Lam’s presence hardly gave the school a break; the review of the site visit was so poor it has now landed the GCAS on the verge of having its charter revoked, as Chester made clear Tuesday morning.

But Chester, other state education officials, and perhaps even the state Attorney General’s office owe taxpayers here and across the state a lot of answers to this end run around of various levels of accountability and oversight — and try to ensure it never happens again.