Education

$50 million statewide scam targeted this school district in Fresno County, DA says

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Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri
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Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri

A Fresno County school is one several schools authorities in San Diego say fell victim to a statewide fraud they believe siphoned at least $50 million in total from California over several years.

Raisin City Elementary School in rural Fresno County was listed among the nearly two dozen schools named as victims last month by the San Diego District Attorney’s Office following a yearlong investigation. Prosecutors say the alleged fraud began in San Diego and moved to the other parts of the state over several years.

An indictment handed down May 17 accuses 11 defendants of pocketing millions of taxpayer dollars intended for charter school students.

Defendants Sean McManus, 46, and Jason Schrock, 44, spent the money on themselves and their families, prosecutors said. They were described in court records as the ringleaders of the alleged fraud.

McManus and Schrock, along with nine co-defendants who are alleged to have played various roles in the scheme, face numerous charges including conspiracy, misappropriation of public funds, paying for student information and conflict of interest.

Schrock, of Long Beach, was arrested, but McManus is believed to be in Australia, according to the district attorney’s office.

Schrock faces 62 counts and more than 40 years in prison if convicted. McManus is charged with 64 counts and is facing more than 40 years in prison, prosecutors say.

Neither Raisin City Superintendent Juan Sandoval nor school board President Nancy Schwabenland responded to requests for comment.

Why Raisin City?

Kim Cooper, a teacher at Raisin City Elementary School, said she and her colleagues felt something was wrong when they were instructed to hand out independent study forms to their kids in December 2017.

The forms, reportedly for previous winter and summer break programs run by a charter school, were backdated, she said, and students were told they would get a pizza party if everyone had their parents sign the forms.

Cooper said most of the student body turned the forms in, but “there’s no way that all our students showed up” to the programs.

The Raisin City School District, besides its four charter schools, is composed only of Raisin City Elementary School. It sits about 15 miles southwest of Fresno, surrounded on three sides by vineyards and an orchard in the tiny town of Raisin City.

A state audit in July 2017 made no mention of the charter schools but found that “sufficient evidence exists to indicate that fraud, misappropriation of district funds and/or assets or other illegal activities may have occurred” at the school district.

There has also been a shakeup of school board members and superintendents in recent years.

But the remote district was targeted by McManus and Schrock, prosecutors say, because of its size and limited experience in oversight. California school districts receive funds in the form of oversight fees when they authorize charter schools, which could have worked as an incentive for the district.

Prosecutors said McManus and Schrock convinced Raisin City to authorize three virtual charter schools between July 2017 and May 2018, then enrolled Raisin City Elementary students during their school break, according to the indictment.

One of the charter schools allegedly provided a winter camp to Raisin City Elementary School students in December 2017 by paying employees to provide the program. They enrolled 301 students for 17 days at the charter school at a profit of over $300,000.

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Teachers at Raisin City Elementary School questioned the backdated master agreements they were told to hand out to students.

A letter sent home to parents states about 60 students participated in the winter program, yet 301 were counted. The students were being disenrolled from Raisin City Elementary and enrolled in the California Academy of Sports Science Fresno, then being re-enrolled at their regular school after the programs, according to court records.

“The state pays school districts based on ‘average daily attendance’ (ADA),” the district attorney’s office said in a news release, “and the defendants used their knowledge of how the state doles out funding to collect as much money as possible.”

Teachers escalated their concerns via email to the Fresno County Office of Education in January 2018, but the Fresno County Superintendent of schools “does not have jurisdiction over charter schools approved by individual school districts,” according to Communications and Public Relations Officer Lisa Birrell.

She said Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino contacted the Raisin City superintendent to make him aware of the concerns.

Ashleigh Panoo: 559-441-6010, @AshleighPanoo
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