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State: Closed Arkansas charter school's chief in contempt

Finance records withheld, audits blocked, judge told by Cynthia Howell | December 23, 2019 at 7:10 a.m.
Dr. Valerie Tatum, former superintendent of Covenant Keepers charter school, is shown in this file photo.

The Arkansas Board of Education is seeking to have former charter school founder and operator Valerie Tatum held in contempt of court for failing to produce documents that will enable the state to audit the now-closed Covenant Keepers Charter School.

Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education attorney Mary Claire Hyatt submitted the motion for contempt to Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan.

McGowan had ordered Tatum at a Nov. 21 hearing to produce fiscal records from 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years as well as records related to the withdrawal and expenditure of about $200,000 from Covenant Keepers Charter School.

Tatum did provide IRS account information and some 295 pages to the state agency, Hyatt wrote in the motion to McGowan, but only 12 of those pages contained new information. The material was not sufficient to do the state audits, Hyatt wrote.

The supplied information did indicate that there are school accounts at Regions and Simmons banks but Tatum did not provide records for those accounts, Hyatt also said.

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John Wesley Hall, who is Tatum's attorney, wrote to McGowan that "Respondent has turned over all that she has or has access to. When the school closed, the records were there and not attended at all times.

"Plenty of other people had access to them by then, and they could have removed the records for beneficent purposes or ill will," Hall wrote.

"Respondent doesn't have them in storage, she doesn't have them in her house, and she doesn't have them in the hands of a third person. She doesn't have them and doesn't have control over them. The [Arkansas Department of Education] obviously thinks so, but they have no evidence whatsoever that she does."

Covenant Keepers won state board approval in 2008.

But the school struggled with academics and finances, affected in part by teacher turnover and a highly transient student population, including pregnant girls and other students who come and go from nontraditional institutions such as juvenile-detention centers and mental-health treatment programs.

In February, the state Board of Education revoked Covenant Keepers College Preparatory School's state-issued charter after learning that unauthorized withdrawals from the school's bank account had left the school's sponsor without enough money to operate.

At the time of its closure, Covenant Keepers served sixth- through eighth-graders. The students were transferred to the Friendship Aspire Academy Middle School.

Shutting down a publicly funded charter school in midyear is rare but not unprecedented in Arkansas. In 2011, the state shut down Urban Collegiate Charter School for Young Men in the middle of the year. All open-enrollment charter schools in the state must have state-issued charters, or contracts with the state, to be able to receive state funding to operate.

Covenant Keepers, sponsored by the nonprofit City of Fire Community Development Inc., had in January agreed to the voluntary nonrenewal of its charter at the end of the current school year, June 30.

There was an attempt to negotiate a transfer of the Covenant Keepers charter to Friendship Education Foundation -- the sponsoring organization for the Friendship Aspire Academy -- but that failed.

The Friendship Education Foundation had been the day-to-day manager of the Covenant Keepers campus this school year based on a memorandum of understanding between it and City of Fire.

Tatum had resigned from the school in the fall.

Metro on 12/23/2019

Print Headline: State: Closed Arkansas charter school's chief in contempt


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