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You Paid for It: More than $1 million missing after charter school shutdown

You Paid for It: More than $1 million missing after charter school shutdown

By Darcy Spears. CREATED Jul 11, 2012

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) -- Charter school enrollment in Nevada is up 85-percent over the last school year, and Renaissance Academy saw that first hand. But the school barely got off the ground before it was shut down by the state. Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears discovered the school had too much autonomy and too little accountability.

The tangle of wires left on the floor of Renaissance Academy's administrative offices is a good illustration of how the online charter school operated.

There's so little left that we had to sit on milk crates to talk with Interim Administrator Gary Manning.

Darcy: What words would you use to describe what happened here?
Gary: Disaster.  Unfortunately, again, because of the students.  So many families were affected by this.  So many teachers.  So many staff.

The K-12 school was only up and running for six months before authorities suspected a lot was amiss.

The State Public Charter School Authority tried to audit Renaissance, but found a lack of integrity, validity and reliability in the Academy's records

"When we had more questions, less answers and we started to work with the governing body we said that we... we pushed toward revocation," explains SPCSA Director Dr. Steve Canavero.

Renaissance was shut down in the Spring after the state found forged and doctored documents from attendance logs to student transcripts.

Darcy: It looks like there was an attempted cover-up.
Gary: Um... I... I believe there probably was.

Roy Harden started up the school as administrator at the age of 26.

"He was never a teacher.  He was never an administrator.  I don't even know if he finished college," says Katherine von Collenberg, a former Renaissance Academy teacher.

Contact 13 discovered Harden has no college degree.  And surprisingly even the school's board didn't know that.

"Ultimately, the buck stops at the board," Dr. Canavero pointed out.

Local lawyer Andrew Platt is the board president.

When Roy Harden refused to return calls, emails, texts, and we couldn't even find him at his last known address, we went to Platt for answers and accountability.

He wouldn't go on camera, but did speak to us at length.  He admits mismanagement and lack of oversight.  He says Roy Harden is guilty of a snow job and the board feels betrayed.  But he says they should have known what was going on and regrets that the kids they set out to help are bearing the brunt of all this.

"I've sat down personally with parents who've cried because it's such a huge challenge to put a kid--especially a kid with some challenges, maybe a special needs kid, a kid who's been bullied at school or something like that--and to have to start over again is a challenge for them," says Gary Manning.

The challenge for the state is recovering taxpayers' money.

"The Department of Ed issued a demand notice to the school for $1.2 million that they were overpaid when they finally audited their attendance," Dr. Canavero explained.

Insurance claims may cover part of it, but there's no guarantee taxpayers will get all those education dollars back.

Contact 13 discovered $180,000 was budgeted for laptop computers that didn't work with the school software.

"I had parents ask me like crazy, are you guys gonna do any social functions?" recalls von Collenberg.  "Are you gonna have anything?  We tried to put stuff like that together but we were told the funds weren't there."

Contact 13 found the funds were in the budget. But even the board doesn't know what happened to the money, which is why the Attorney General is now investigating.

As for the equipment, some has been donated to other charter schools.

Darcy: Is there equipment from Renaissance that's still unaccounted for?
Gary: Yes.
Darcy: And are we talking primarily computers?
Gary: Computers, hot-spots, printers.  butt to 18:36 Probably a couple hundred computers.
Darcy: That's kind of a big deal.
Gary: Yes.  It is a big deal.

Board president Andrew Platt also told Contact 13 they're trying to track down some interactive big-screen TVs with light pens, as well as an iPad and several iPhones. All bought with taxpayer dollars, and all which he admits are probably long gone.

"It is a very unique case," says Dr. Canavero.  "This not something we would say is standard operating procedure for charter schools across the state."

But it's also not an isolated incident.

Contact 13 discovered 11 Nevada charter schools have shut down in twelve years--many because of "serious deficiencies" for things like financial mismanagement, poor pupil record-keeping, and problems with teacher licensing, curriculum standards, special education and testing.

"More charter schools have closed for financial reasons than they have for academic reasons.  And that's a trend that's beginning to change a bit."

Canavero says state sponsors are holding charter schools more accountable.

They've improved the application and decision-making process, and created a new position for a financial expert to help the schools and the state track and account for the tax dollars they're entrusted with.

The Attorney General's investigation is still in the early stages, so whether any criminal charges will come out of this remains to be seen.

Contact 13 will stay on top of it.

Darcy Spears

Darcy Spears

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Darcy Spears is currently the Chief Investigative Reporter for Action News.