In February 2011, after a decade of dismal performance, the New Millennium charter school in west Fresno turned to Dr. Ernie Smith for help.
Smith, who had spent 38 years as a college counselor, adviser and associate dean, agreed to serve as vice principal of the charter school, which operated under the umbrella of the Fresno Unified School District.
But the job came with a warning: A friend on the New Millennium board told Smith that the school was a "mess," and he would be wise to steer clear of it.
As he dug in, Smith said he was unprepared for the sheer level of dysfunction he encountered at New Millennium -- and the hands-off attitude of Fresno Unified.
The school had opened in 1999 with the goal of providing a "last chance" for students on the verge of dropping out. Instead, by Fresno Unified's own reckoning, New Millennium was failing to meet the most basic education standards.
Students were coming and going in an independent study program that lacked even the pretense of accounting, Smith said. The program was so poorly run that the publicly funded school was having to pay back nearly $1 million in ADA (Average Daily Attendance) money to the state because of administrative lapses.
There was no central record keeping, Smith said. Instead, student transcripts and other files were tossed into boxes. The school had gone through seven principals and superintendents over a nine-year span. The oversight was so lax that counselors were receiving paychecks and not coming to work.
Among the no-shows was Cal Johnson, a trustee on the Fresno Unified School Board who is paid $3,600 a month to act as a "crisis counselor" at New Millennium.
Johnson skipped work for weeks at a time even as he was attending school board meetings, Smith and other former employees said. When he did show up, they said, he typically arrived late in the afternoon -- after students had gone home for the day.
"It was more than a mess," Smith said. "The entire staff seemed to be friends or relatives of each other. It was a nest of nepotism.
"The purpose for being there had stopped being about the kids. It was about, 'Let's take care of us first.' "
Nine out of 10 students at New Millennium stood at below basic or far below basic for 10th grade math, statistics showed. Less than 20% of the seniors were graduating with a diploma.
Smith had only a small window of time to improve the school. A charter review team from Fresno Unified would be arriving in 2012-13 to decide if New Millennium warranted a five-year renewal of its charter.
Smith turned to two teachers on the staff, Judith Sanchez and Leslie Biedermann, to help him. But five months into his reforms, the ax fell.
Smith, Sanchez and Biedermann were let go after a dispute with New Millennium board chairman Earl Brown over a proposed spending plan. Several discouraged teachers followed the trio out the door.
"The school -- and there is no easy way to say this -- is not providing an adequate education for the kids who go there," Smith said. "Instead, it's become a cash cow for a handful of people. And Fresno Unified is sitting on its duff and not doing anything about it."
Smith is hardly alone in his assessment.
More than two dozen interviews with former teachers, administrators and community leaders, as well as a review of hundreds of pages of official documents, detail a decade-long pattern of a charter school repeatedly violating state education codes and a school district unwilling to hold it accountable. Each violation by the school, each broken promise to clean up its act ended with Fresno Unified giving New Millennium another chance.