crimestoppers

Investigation into charter school CEO ends with an indictment

The founder of a moribund chain of Brooklyn charter schools embezzled taxpayer funds and did not pay taxes on his earnings, then falsified documents to try to cover up his crimes, according to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

Schneiderman today announced that he was indicting Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the founding CEO of the Believe High Schools Network, on 11 felony charges including tax fraud, grand larceny, and tampering with evidence.

The indictment caps a lengthy investigation that was well underway when the state and cityciting massive mismanagement and financial improprieties, each moved to shut down the network this year. A major issue was the high management fees that Calderon-Melendez charged the network’s three schools. Last year, Williamsburg Charter High School  failed to make rent after a sharp enrollment decline. The year before, the school sent students to an industrial space when its own building was not ready.

The state is letting one school in the network, Believe Northside Charter School, remain open, but the city earlier this month rejected an appeal by the flagship school, Williamsburg Charter, after concluding that it was about $5 million in debt.

Calderon-Melendez took home nearly $1.5 million while that debt accrued, according to Schneiderman’s indictment, which spells out a pattern of brazen theft. Investigators found that Calderon-Melendez paid no taxes on those earnings and used the school’s credit card to finance a personal trip to Europe. And when they started scrutinizing the school’s records, Calderon-Melendez fabricated documents and evidence to “throw investigators off his trail,” Schneiderman said in a press release about the charges.

Calderon-Melendez was forced out of the Believe Network’s leadership in February, years into Schneiderman’s investigation and months after the city and state had told the schools to sever their relationship with him or lose their right to operate.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed, an arrangement that can create some opportunities for fraud that do not exist in district-managed schools. But charter schools that are mismanaged can be closed.

Schneiderman’s press release is below.

A.G. Schneiderman Secures Indictment Of Former Brooklyn Charter School Network Founder And CEO

Believe Network And Williamsburg Charter High School Leader Received Over $1.4 Million In Compensation And Never Paid Taxes To New York

After Taking Home Over $500K In 2009, Eddie Calderon-Melendez Charged European Vacation On School Credit Card

Schneiderman: Those Who Cheat Taxpayers And Abuse The Public Trust Will Be Prosecuted To Fullest Extent Of The Law

NEW YORK – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced his office has secured an 11-count indictment of Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the founder and former CEO of the beleaguered Williamsburg Charter High School and Believe High Schools Network, a charter management organization. According to the Attorney General’s indictment, Calderon-Melendez received over $1.4 million in compensation from 2005 to 2010, yet he never filed a tax return and failed to pay over $70,000 in taxes.

Nearly all of Calderon-Melendez’s compensation during that period came, directly or indirectly, from taxpayer-funded charter schools. Mr. Calderon-Melendez then attempted to cover up his tax crimes by creating and submitting false New York tax returns to the Office of the Attorney General.

“While earning a six-figure salary funded largely by taxpayer dollars, the defendant robbed the state of New York of much-needed revenue when he failed to pay his taxes for six years in a row. He then compounded his crime by creating false evidence to throw investigators off his trail,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “The charges announced today send a strong message that tax cheats and those who tamper with investigations will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

The indictment, secured in Kings County Supreme Court, charged Melendez with 11 felony counts: two counts of Repeated Failure to File Personal Income and Earnings Taxes; two counts of Criminal Tax Fraud in the Third Degree; one count of Criminal Tax Fraud in the Fourth Degree; four counts of Tampering with Physical Evidence; one count of Grand Larceny in the Fourth Degree; and one count of Falsifying Business Records in the First Degree.

According to the indictment, at the end of 2009—a year in which he took home over $500,000—Melendez charged over $1,800 on the Williamsburg Charter High School’s credit card, to pay for expenses as part of a personal trip he took to Europe. In an effort to conceal this theft, Melendez then made false entries in the business records of the Charter High School.

Commissioner of Taxation and Finance Thomas H. Mattox, said, “Earlier this week, the Tax Department described its statewide efforts regarding personal income tax violations. I commend Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and his staff for today’s action, which underscores that non-compliance with income tax obligations will be an enforcement priority for New York State.”

The charges are merely accusations and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

This investigation was handled by Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Suplina and Senior Counsel Emily Bradford, under the supervision of Taxpayer Protection Bureau Chief Randall Fox and Executive Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Justice Nancy Hoppock.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede