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.
Most of last year, the school operated without a principal. Brown, who has no background in education, was chairman of the board and chief executive officer. Periodic phone calls and visits to New Millennium by Fresno State journalism students throughout the school year found Cal Johnson at the school only one time.
Johnson said recently he is at the school five hours a day on average, unless he has school board meetings or visits other schools in his trustee area. He said he doesn't log his hours, and there are no official records of his time on the job.
"There aren't any benchmarks at New Millennium," said Sanchez, who worked at the school for nearly a decade, rising up the ranks to lead teacher. "The teachers are winging it. They have no way to assess students.
"Fresno Unified has let the school off the hook. It hasn't done its oversight."
In an interview last week, Brown says the school is doing its job, and that Smith, Sanchez and Biedermann simply are nursing a grudge.
"There is nobody bringing up issues except these three disgruntled former employees," he said. "All of their statements are not factual."
Jamilah Fraser, chief information officer for Fresno Unified, said the school district has fulfilled its oversight role of New Millennium, stepping up its monitoring in the past few years after the state demanded a payback of ADA funds.
Fraser produced a three-page timeline detailing actions taken by the school district to scrutinize the school, including site visits and meetings.
"New Millennium remains on monthly monitoring. This is something the district only does with charter schools where the district believes a close eye must be kept on the charter's fiscal viability and responsibility," she said.
Fraser said Fresno Unified's hands are tied by state education laws that limit how much the chartering district can intervene: "We're oversight, we're not in charge of that charter school. Everyone wants to think that Fresno Unified can just go in there and change everything around. That's not how it works."
But Smith and other critics say the charter school, whose enrollment has fluctuated from 200 to 500 students, should have been shut down years ago.
In a confidential report to the Fresno Unified School Board in July 2009, the district's charter review team found that the school was failing to provide students with an adequate education. The report noted that the school was continuing to violate numerous terms of its operating agreement with Fresno Unified -- clear grounds for revocation under state education law.
The charter review team then recommended to Superintendent Michael Hanson that the charter be revoked, records show.
But Hanson never acted on the "notice of intent to revoke," records show. Had he pursued it, a public hearing would have been required by law. Instead, the superintendent decided not to place the item on the school board agenda, even though his administration and the trustees had pledged to shut down New Millennium if the violations continued.
Thus, New Millennium was allowed to continue operating despite its failings.
Critics suggest politics stopped the revocation process. Johnson is one of Hanson's staunchest supporters on the school board, they point out. Brown is not only a close friend of Johnson, but he also served as his campaign manager during his 2010 re-election to the school board.
"The whole thing is smelly," said Bob Harris, a former superintendent at New Millennium. "You've got Cal Johnson, a member of the school board and a 'yes' vote for Hanson, getting a salary at New Millennium. It raises the question whether Hanson and the school board are looking the other way and keeping open a troubled school as a political favor to Cal Johnson."
When asked last week if Johnson's political power kept the school open, Brown deflected the question. "I'd have to think about that for a moment. I don't want to just react, that the only reason the school is open is because of Cal Johnson."
Johnson, who represents west Fresno on the school board, rejected the notion. He said he recuses himself in all matters related to New Millennium that come before the school board.
Hanson, too, hotly denied the accusation, saying Johnson's employment at New Millennium had in no way influenced his decisions. "If there was something that needed to be done with the school in revocation, then we would have done it. If it needs to be revoked moving forward, then we will do it. (Johnson) being a board member and working there is not going to affect how I operate as superintendent."
Other New Millennium board members do not dispute that the school is hobbled by problems, but they say yanking the charter is not the solution.
"This is a last-chance school, and it has to be viewed in that light," said board member Linzie Daniel, a retired hospital administrator. "Sure, we'd like to see better API scores, but that's not the population we serve. Some schools have a few problem kids, but we have a whole school of kids that need special attention.
"We should be judged by a different standard than other schools."
Pastor Paul Binion of the Westside Church of God, for one, disagrees. Last fall, the respected community leader became so concerned that the charter school and Fresno Unified were doing a disservice to children that he met with Superintendent Hanson.
During the meeting, he said, he questioned the propriety of Johnson serving on the school board while working at New Millennium. He wondered why Chairman Brown was laying off skilled and outspoken teachers while keeping those who are his friends.
"I met with Mr. Hanson at his office, and I laid out the concerns," Binion said. "He told me, 'I will take up these concerns, I will put them in the right hands, and I will get back you.' Which he has not done."
Hanson said he turned the matter over to Ed Gonzalez, then a top FUSD administrator who since has gone to work for the county office of education. Gonzalez said the problems seemed related to personnel squabbles and, after meeting with Binion and Fresno Unified charter staff, he determined that "there was no evidence of any wrongdoing that we could establish at New Millennium."
But Binion said the school district obviously didn't look deep enough.
"They don't care. They don't care. Okay. This is only west Fresno. It's only black and Mexican kids. This is not Bullard. This is not Clovis West. This is only New Millennium," he said. "They don't care."
When the founders of New Millennium set out in 1998 to educate west Fresno youths who had dropped out or were on the verge of dropping out, they knew it would be a tall task.
The school was the brainchild of Arthur Littlefield, a longtime west Fresno resident who worked for the Fresno County Economic Opportunities Commission. Littlefield wanted to open his own jobs training agency and wed it with a charter school serving seventh- to 12th-graders. The school would graduate neighborhood kids who had flunked out of Fresno Unified and then hand them off to the career training program.
Littlefield formed the non-profit Fresno Career Development Institute (FCDI), the jobs training arm whose board of directors also would oversee New Millennium.
He rented an old Smart & Final building on the corner of Fresno and Collins streets in the heart of one of the city's oldest and most economically neglected neighborhoods where only three out of 10 residents had a high school diploma, statistics showed. Gangs were feuding over a turf fast changing from African-American to Hispanic.
From early on, the lines between FCDI and New Millennium were blurred. The same people sat on both boards. Many of them were longtime friends -- prominent graduates of Edison High in the 1960s and '70s who had gone on to become educators and rise through the ranks of Fresno Unified.
"It was my baby," said Littlefield, who stayed on until 2010, when a power struggle led to his ouster. "I got Dolphas Trotter on board. And Lois Harris-Perkins helped us write the charter. She became the first superintendent."
Littlefield chose Brown to help lead the governing board. They had been close friends since the seventh grade at Irwin Junior High. A union organizer, Brown was the younger brother of Lee Brown, police chief of Houston and New York City before becoming the mayor of Houston.
As executive director of FCDI, Littlefield earned about $90,000 a year, he said. He tried not to micro-manage the school.
"I wasn't an educator and neither was Earl Brown. So we left the running of the school to people who were educators," he said.
"The problems got started because every time the board let go a superintendent or principal, I wanted to advertise for that position and get the best outside candidates. But the board started hiring their friends. It became very insider, very west Fresno."
Judith Sanchez was earning her bachelor's degree in Liberal Studies from Fresno State in 2000 when she met Harris-Perkins at church and was recruited as a school aide. After graduating, Sanchez received an emergency credential, and Harris-Perkins placed her right in the classroom.
"There I was the cultural studies teacher, the Spanish teacher, the computer teacher," she said. "Everything was makeshift. Teachers would show up one day and wouldn't come back. Other teachers would be there until lunchtime and say they're leaving for lunch and wouldn't come back."
Harris-Perkins, a former assistant superintendent for Fresno Unified, started feuding with board members over her push to bring higher standards to the school, Sanchez said.
By 2002-03, the governing board had replaced her with Dolphas Trotter. He had been the first black principal at Edison High and an associate superintendent at Fresno Unified.
Trotter ran a tighter ship, former teachers said, but he soon grew ill with cancer. The board eventually replaced him with Maureen Moore, a former principal at Sequoia Middle School in Fresno Unified.
"She was a pro," Sanchez said. "She started giving us staff training, teaching us how to develop lesson plans, a curriculum, how to assess students."
By the 2005-06 school year, a growing number of New Millennium's students were not participating in the traditional seated program but taking classes in an independent study setting. These students weren't attending the New Millennium campus but signing in and out of classes at another site, former teachers said.
It was a situation ripe for abuse. New Millennium was receiving ADA money from the state for independent study attendance, but the students were being recruited and monitored by an outside consulting firm, Ephesians Management Co.
The firm was run by Joe Lee, a close friend to several FCDI/New Millennium board members. A decade earlier, Lee had resigned from his deputy superintendent's job with Fresno Unified after pleading guilty to grand theft in connection with filing false travel claims.
In 2002, Lee was back in court when a jury found him guilty of stealing money from the West Fresno School District -- again for travel expenses.
The independent study enrollment grew under Lee's watch, but the internal controls at New Millennium were so lax that teachers in the seated program suspected that students in independent study were receiving credits for work they had not completed.
The school had become a kind of credit mill, former teachers and administrators said. The purpose of the original charter -- to graduate at-risk students and train them for jobs -- seemed to have been lost in the hustle for more ADA.
"There were so many kids coming and going that we didn't know what our mission was," said Sandra Hammond, who taught English at New Millennium from 2005 to 2007. "Were we training them for careers? Were we taking potential dropouts and turning them into graduates so they could move on to college? Were we simply giving them a better grade so they could return to their home schools?
"A lot of these kids were being warehoused. They were just there to keep them off the streets so the school could get the ADA."
The daily whereabouts of some administrators also was a mystery. "I was there for a year and saw Cal Johnson maybe 20 times," said Biedermann, the former English and math teacher. "It became a running joke. 'We've got another crisis, but where's our crisis counselor?' "
Brown explained that Johnson is on the payroll as a contractor. No one tracks his hours, the number of students he sees or what happens during his counseling sessions.
"Mr. Johnson is an experienced professional," Brown said. "Nobody, including myself, needs to walk behind him and see what steps he's taking. I would give Mr. Johnson things I wouldn't give my own wife. I trust him."
In December 2008, an internal audit of the school by Jaribu Nelson, an outside accountant, confirmed the worst fears:
Teachers were allowing students to earn credits without completing their work assignments; the oversight by Fresno Unified had broken down to such a degree that the independent study program was being run without a supervisor from the school.
Auditor Nelson found that New Millennium owed the state of California between $1.2 million and $2 million in disallowed ADA because of the administrative lapses. The state eventually agreed to a payback of $898,000, according to Arlene Matsuura at the California Department of Education.
"It was a significant infraction," she said. "I can recall only one or two other audit findings in the state where a charter school had to pay back a larger amount."
If Fresno Unified now had ample reason to declare New Millennium unfit to stay open, the oversight of the school took a curious turn.
In May 2008, Principal Moore stood before the Fresno Unified School Board. She was joined by Rosylin Bessard, the then-director of school choice for Fresno Unified who oversaw charter review. College sorority sisters, Moore and Bessard were close friends.
With a 43-page petition, Moore had come to make the case that New Millennium was worthy of having its charter renewed for another five years -- until 2013.
The official vote took place a month later. The charter review team noted "the lack of student progress after 10 years of operation" and called it "disconcerting." Even so, Bessard was recommending approval of the petition with several conditions, records show. So was Superintendent Hanson.
School Board Trustee Johnson, crisis counselor at New Millennium, left the dais and recused himself because of a "financial conflict of interest," records show. Then the rest of the school board -- Michelle Asadoorian, Valerie Davis, Carol Mills, Manuel Nunez, Janet Ryan, Tony Vang -- voted unanimously to approve the petition to re-charter New Millennium.
Bessard said her friendship with Principal Moore did not influence her recommendation: "Both of us have too much integrity for that. And don't forget. No matter what you take to the school board, the school board makes the final decision."
Fresno Unified officials publicly assured the school board that New Millennium would correct the deficiencies listed in the MOU within 60 days -- before July 15, 2008. The deadline came and went, however, without the conditions being met. Among the deficiencies not corrected was the implementation of a curriculum management plan.
"The curriculum management plan details what standards you are teaching and how you are assessing students to determine if they are meeting those standards," said former lead teacher Sanchez. "Without it, you can't be a real school."
Fresno Unified decided to give New Millennium another year to meet the requirements -- this time pledging to bring the matter back to the school board in June 2009.
"If what we have seen is not dramatically improved over the next year, we will be compelled to provide notice of the deficiencies and, if not improved, pursue revocation of the charter," the board resolution read.
But by June 2009, little had changed. The district's charter review team led by administrator Debra Odom found that New Millennium continued to flout the central terms of the MOU. The school was falling short of even minimum standards in numerous areas, it concluded.
The review team recommended that the charter be revoked. But Superintendent Hanson never pursued a "notice of intent to revoke," records show. He never placed the school's continuing violations on the agenda for the school board to consider publicly.
And despite their pledge a year earlier, no school board trustee openly demanded that Hanson pursue the revocation.
In an interview this month, Hanson said the issue was too complicated at the time -- and there were too many unknowns about New Millennium -- to hold a public meeting. He said the district was waiting for the state Department of Education to agree to a repayment plan on the ADA money. And New Millennium had hired another new team of administrators to straighten things out.
"I had a sense from the staff that things were getting better," Hanson said.
But the district's own documents show that New Millennium continued to violate its charter agreement with Fresno Unified -- reason alone to find the school unfit to stay open. A curriculum management plan, for one, still had never been completed.
By early 2009, the school's new team was in place. It was led by Bob Harris, a retired assistant superintendent at Fresno Unified, and a good friend of Earl Brown.
Harris said he told Brown that drastic action was needed. He had to dismiss several employees whose positions could no longer be justified given the dwindling number of students (100 or so) in the seated program.
Among the consultants and staff he said he laid off was Cal Johnson. "Cal had no training as a high school counselor, and frankly we didn't need two counselors for that few students," Harris said.
Johnson gives a different reason for his departure: "I was never let go from New Millennium. I relieved myself of my duties for a period of time to address health issues."
Harris set about his reforms, trying to match revenues with spending and produce handbooks detailing the roles of administrators and teachers.
"This was 10 years after the school had opened, and they were still operating in the blind," he said. "We released several teachers. Some of them didn't have proper credentials. One of them was passing out crossword puzzles during algebra."
Then in late 2009, Harris and his administrative team abruptly left, saying they couldn't come to a contractual agreement with Brown and the rest of the school's board. They had been there barely six months. "It wasn't a group we could work with," Harris said.
Needing to fill the superintendent's slot, New Millennium awarded a two-year contract to Nadar Ali, a retired educator who owns the Salaam Seafood restaurant on the west side. A new contract was given to hire back Cal Johnson, as well.
In late 2010, the governing board reached out to Ernie Smith, the retired associate dean who had worked at FCDI as a jobs agent, to mend the school.
At the age of 63, Smith was a man who still relished a challenge. What he didn't fully appreciate, he said, was how ill-prepared the board and staff were to meet that challenge.
"One of the first things I noticed when I got inside is they had huge discipline problems and big dropout rates. They were not disciplining the kids. The kids were running the show," Smith said.
"But Brown's instruction to me was to get them registered, get them to sit in their seats, on the first day of class, and we've captured the ADA. That was the bottom line for him. Money."
That first semester, Smith became concerned that Cal Johnson was missing work. Johnson had battled cancer in the past but appeared in strong health, he said. Smith questioned Brown about Johnson not having a work schedule or time sheet. He said Brown told him not to supervise Johnson. He was "off limits."
Smith said he was aghast when he discovered another consultant taking student records from school to home. "I told Brown, 'We can't be taking student records off the premises.' He said, 'Don't worry about it. I'm the CEO.' I said, 'We're violating the law.' He said, 'You just get the kids there.' "
Brown conceded that he allowed the consultant to take home student records to work on them. "I don't micromanage anything," he explained. "Ain't no way in the world I could tell (her) how to do what she does."
Smith said he found enough talent on the staff to form his own team, which included teachers Sanchez and Biedermann. Over the next four months, from January to April 2011, they worked long hours preparing for an accreditation visit by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, detailing academic goals and areas for improvement.
The effort paid off as the WASC team ended up accrediting the school with a qualified endorsement. "We saw the challenges that were in place and people like Judith Sanchez who were working hard to move the school forward," said Trudy Gross, a high school assistant principal in Cupertino who headed the WASC team.
But as the school year ended in 2011, Sanchez, Smith and Biedermann say, they found themselves on the wrong side of Brown after questioning a spending plan. Soon after, Brown laid off Smith and Biedermann and dismissed Sanchez.
The trio believes that their opposition to the spending plan -- a proposal to transfer $150,000 from the school to the jobs training program -- was the reason Brown let them go. But Brown said it was a combination of budget cuts and personnel matters.
Disheartened by another change in leadership, several New Millennium teachers decided to seek jobs elsewhere, including Luke McFadden, a highly regarded science teacher.
"I was tired of what was going on. It seemed that every time we were making strides, Earl Brown and the board would step in and pull the rug out from under us. They tore down Sanchez and Smith for no good reason," said McFadden, who now teaches at Cooper Middle School in Fresno Unified.
Smith, Sanchez and Biedermann compiled a list of 41 serious deficiencies at New Millennium and presented it to the governing board.
When the New Millennium board took no action, the three former employees met with Fresno Unified's Odom again. Up to that point, they had viewed Odom as a good watchdog, committed to investigating problems and even pushing to revoke the school's charter. But they said something had changed between the first and second meetings. Odom seemed to grow timid.
The second meeting came to an abrupt halt when Sanchez asked Odom where she stood on Cal Johnson's dual role.
"Odom looked at me and said, 'He's my boss like the rest of the school board. I like my job. I want to retire and have my house with the wraparound porch,' " Sanchez recalled.
"The whole conversation changed at that point. Odom said, 'I can't tell you anything. I won't tell you anything. Unless student safety is at risk or you can come to me with proof of mishandling of money, I can't do a thing. I need proof.' "
Odom said she met with the trio about their concerns, but she calls their account of the meeting false. She denies that she ever held back from investigating the alleged 41 deficiencies because of Johnson's influence or worries about her job security.
Smith, however, said he walked out of the meeting with Odom feeling as if New Millennium could not be touched by virtue of Johnson's role as a school board trustee.
"Odom told us we had to have proof. I mean what is their role? Don't they have oversight of New Millennium?" Smith said. "Why is it our job to get proof? They go get the proof. They go do the investigation. Saying, 'I need proof or I can't do anything' tells me that you don't want to do anything."
Smith, whose brother Tommie raised his fist in a black power salute while receiving the gold medal in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, a gesture that became iconic across the globe, said he was deeply saddened. Any other charter school with New Millennium's long record of troubles would have been closed years ago.
"Let me be frank," Smith said. "Because this is a school run by blacks, the superintendent and the school board tread lightly. They don't want Cal Johnson accusing them of racism if they come down hard. But holding the school's feet to the fire isn't racism. It's accountability."
Pastor Binion of the Westside Church of God agrees. He said he listened to the concerns of Smith, Sanchez and Biedermann and caught no whiff of sour grapes.
"Their concerns were all common sense. People on the payroll not showing up for work. Frequent changes in leadership. Inconsistencies, irregularities, lack of accountability, numerous education code violations," Binion said.
Last fall, the pastor decided to take his concerns to County Superintendent of Schools Larry Powell, his friend. Powell explained that he did not have primary oversight of New Millennium.
"So I met with Hanson," Binion said. "I told him the concerns. He said he was going to give them to Debra Odom. I told him that Ms. Odom already has a list of the concerns. And he looked up and said, 'What?' and I said, 'Yeah, but Ms. Odom was not responsive.' Hanson gave me a very surprised look."
Binion said he then brought up the dual role of Johnson, framing it as a conflict of interest. He said Hanson replied, "Well, I need to check and see if that's a violation."
(Hanson said recently in a meeting with Bee editors that he had determined there was no violation.)
"Fresno Unified has done very little," Binion said. "If they cared, if they really cared, they'd say, 'Wait a minute, we cannot have people like this over a school.' "
Sadly, Binion said, the neglect also rested with the Westside community.
"We have a good old boy system. The good old boy system is not just for white folks. The good old boy system covers all ethnicities. And those who have been here a long time, they take care of each other. They cover each other even at the expense of the public good."
Critics point to the example of Rosylin Bessard, the top administrator at Fresno Unified whose duties included the re-chartering of New Millennium. Bessard retired last year and went to work as a consultant for New Millennium. The part-time job has her dealing with the same Fresno Unified charter review team she once oversaw -- this time to secure New Millennium a new charter in 2013.
"I'm retired, and this is an area of expertise for me. New Millennium has a need, and I have a service," she said.
Fresno Unified's Fraser said charter schools commonly hire experienced educators and that such relationships bear no influence on the district's oversight.
"Any outstanding issues New Millennium has failed to address will be closely scrutinized when the charter is up for renewal again."
When the 2012-13 school year opened a few weeks ago, New Millennium had remade itself once again.
Nadar Ali II, a teacher at a southeast Fresno charter school and the son of the former superintendent at New Millennium, was now the new principal. Earl Brown was singing his praises: "He's well-qualified, experienced."
The students now numbered 170. And only seven of them -- all eighth-graders -- were involved in the seated program, Brown said. The rest were coming and going as part of an expanded independent study program. This was the school's future, Brown said, even as the current charter required otherwise.
"I'm so pleased with the way our school is now compared to where it was this time year before last," he said, smiling. "We are focused on the students."
When former English teacher Hammond thinks back to her years at New Millennium, she, too, thinks of the students.
"There were lots of problems but also lots of people with noble intentions trying to help those kids. But how in the world could they hope to educate students in such a setting? There wasn't a blade of grass, not a flower, not a cafeteria, not a library. I used to bring in plants and tapestry so we could pretend that we had some nature to look at.
"But as dreary as that place was, some of the kids didn't want to go home at the end of the day. They found every reason to stay. And that's what breaks my heart about that school. All that it could have been and never was."
This story was produced for a Fresno State advanced reporting class taught by journalist Mark Arax. Arax's sister, Michelle Asadoorian, is a Fresno Unified trustee who voted with the rest of the board to extend the New Millennium charter.
Bee education writer Heather Somerville fact-checked the story and contributed to the reporting.