GOODYEAR, AZ — A West Valley charter school and two of its top administrators are facing felony charges, accused of stealing more than a $500,000 in tax money, and forging documents to cover their tracks, according to a grand jury indictment handed down January 20.
The indictment, filed by the Arizona Attorney General's office, accuses Incito Schools and executive directors April Black and Amanda Jelleson, of falsifying payroll records in order to obtain funds from the Maricopa County Superintendent's office, and the Maricopa County Educational Services Agency. According to the Arizona Attorney General's office, the crime occurred between November 2016, and November 2017, and involved the theft of $567,802.
Three former school employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity to ABC15, say they discovered discrepancies on their W-2 tax forms, indicating they had been paid approximately $8,000 more than they had actually received. A pay code on the form led them to a grant which had been awarded by the superintendent's office. The former teachers said they reported the issue to the county, which turned over the complaint to the Arizona Attorney General's office.
ABC15 reached out to the school and its representatives for comment. No one would agree to speak with us on the record.
Former employees said the indictment is just one indicator of a bizarre system of paying teachers and other employees. Multiple former employees said they were paid a small base salary -- far below the state average -- but were promised bonuses throughout the year to make up the difference. The bonuses, the former employees said, were often paid at school-wide events called "celebrations," where employees were given money and gifts, as rewards for their "loyalty."
The gifts, according to former workers, included Apple watches and iPads, Tiffany necklaces, and a group outing to a nail salon.
Incito Schools was incorporated as a charter school in 2013, according to records filed with the Arizona State Charter School Board. Charter schools are required to hire an accounting firm annually to conduct an audit. ABC15 could not find any audit on file for FY2017, the year in which the crimes allegedly occurred.
Other audits indicate the school has received between $2.7 million and $3.2 million in state equalization funding each year. The school spent as much as a quarter of its budget on administrative costs in the 2018-2019 school year, about $2,000 more per student than the state average, according to an analysis from Arizonans for Charter School Accountability, a watchdog group. The same analysis shows the school spent more than half of its budget outside the classroom.
Critics point to other cases of financial impropriety, amplifying the need for charter school reform.
In 2018, Bradley Creemos Academy in Goodyear closed abruptly, leaving parents scrambling to find another school. Three top executives were charged and convicted last year in a $2.5 million scheme to inflate attendance numbers, pocketing state funds in the process. A year prior to its closing, the state charter board renewed its charter for 20 years, despite concerns about its financial reporting.
Starshine Academy in Phoenix was closed by the state charter board in 2018 for "egregious" financial issues. The school filed for bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy trustee said in court documents that its owner, Patricia McCarty used school funds for vacations in Hawaii and Europe, and hired "spiritual healers."
At Incito Schools, Black and Jelleson serve as administrators, but also serve on the school's governing board. Such an arrangement would be prohibited by law in a school district, where governing boards are elected, but is perfectly legal in charter schools, which are often privately owned and managed.
"Charter boards very frequently have friends and relatives as well as people who work for the school on their board and there's no prohibition on that," said Dave Wells, research director at the non-partisan Grand Canyon Institute. "There are often people who have conflicts of interest that simply would not be allowed in a district school."
Charter schools are supposed to be regulated by the Arizona State Charter School Board, but critics say the board is populated by political appointees, appointed by the governor, who are friendly to the charter industry and reluctant to aggressively pursue complaints of financial impropriety.
"The state has never audited any charter school. Ones we looked at have usually been because the federal government has caught them in bankruptcy proceedings or there's been fraud related to the department of education in Arizona," Wells said.
ABC15 asked board spokeswoman Serena Campas for comment on the Incito Schools case, asking if the board intended to review the school's charter or conduct its own audit of the school. Campas asked when our story would be published, but had not responded directly to our questions at the time of publication. Charter board records indicate Incito has been the subject of at least two public complaints, but the board has not provided copies of those complaints as requested.
ABC15 asked Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to comment on the case. A spokesperson would not explain why the investigation took nearly three years to complete. "We have no comment," spokesperson Katie Conner said.
Incito Schools got a "C" grade for academic performance in 2018-19 school year -- the most recent year with available data -- according to the Arizona Department of Education.