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Detroit charter school profiled by Bridge fined $144,000 by state

Detroit Community Schools, a charter school located in a low-income, underserved corner of the city, will have to repay the state $144,000 after the school illegally employed two administrators who are unlicensed.

The Michigan Department of Education found that Detroit Community Schools violated state licensing law last school year because it employed Sharon McPhail, a former city attorney and city councilwoman, as its superintendent since 2012, and employed Eschelle Jordan, as the high school principal, while both women were unlicensed.

State law requires a superintendent, principal, assistant principal, administrator of instructional programs or chief business official to be certified.

In an interview last spring with Bridge, McPhail said her superintendent title had changed to chief administrative officer and therefore, she did not need to be certified.

In a penalty letter dated Aug. 1, the state disagreed. McPhail’s title at the school changed on the school’s website from superintendent to “chief administrative officer” in March, after Bridge first started asking questions of the school. However, McPhail was still required to be certified because “a change in title did not substantiate the change in responsibility or role,” the state wrote.

MDE decided to investigate four administrators at the school after a story in Bridge revealed in April that some top administrators were not certified.

Under a 2015 law, schools that are found to violate administrator certification law must repay the state for the salary paid during the time the employee worked without certification.The charter school was ordered to repay the state $87,260 of the $130,000 salary paid to McPhail from October 2015 to June 2016; and $57,054 of the $85,000 salary the state said was illegally paid to Jordan.

MDE found that the chief financial officer at the school, William F. Coleman III, former superintendent for the Detroit Public Schools, and another administrator, Wajih Hakim, are not required to be certified. Their employment is in compliance with state law, the state said.

Detroit Community Schools is a charter school in the Brightmoor neighborhood on Detroit’s west side. It educates about 800 students in elementary through high school and is the only high school serving the 7,000 school children in the neighborhood. It has struggled academically since its inception in 1997. As Bridge previously reported, of the 1,053 students who took the ACT tests since the high school first offered it in 2006-2007, only two have met the college-ready standard in all tested subjects.

At least two of the administrators at the school have had legal troubles involving malfeasance.

Coleman was also indicted as part of a Texas bribery scandal in Dallas where he once worked. But he was allowed to plead guilty in 2008 to a reduced charge of attempting to influence a grand jury in return for testifying for the federal government, court records show. As a result, prosecutors also agreed to drop conspiracy, bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges against Coleman in the kickback scheme, which the government valued at roughly $40 million.

The school’s dean is Sylvia James, a former judge. In 2012, the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission recommended James be removed from the district court bench in Inkster, near Detroit, for misusing court funds.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld that recommendation and removed James, finding that James “made numerous misrepresentations of fact” to the Judicial Tenure Commission, employed her niece against court rules and misappropriated funds intended for the court’s Community Service Program, including money that was supposed to go to crime victims and the elderly in Inkster. She has since filed a lawsuit challenging that ruling.

The school's charter contract is authorized by Bay Mills Community College, located in Brimley in the Upper Peninsula. Michael Parish, who heads the Bay Mills Community College charter school office, could not be reached Thursday to comment on the fines.

The MDE penalty letter was addressed to Richard Robinson, the school's board president last school year. His term ended June 30, according to the school's website. McPhail, and three other members of the charter school's board, also did not respond to Bridge inquiries.

According to the state, MDE’s findings mean the school can no longer employ McPhail and Jordan as administrators until they are properly certified.

"State law prohibits the continued employment of a non-certified individual as a school administrator," William DiSessa, a spokesman for MDE, wrote in an email to Bridge.

Further, he said, the school cannot circumvent the law by firing and then rehiring them in an interim or temporary administrative position - a tactic used by some schools in the past to avoid rules that allow administrators to begin the certification process within six months of being hired.

If a school official continues to employ administrators after having been notified that the administrators are unlicensed, then the official will be guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by $1,500 per offense, according to the MDE.

View the penalty letter below:

DCS Penalty Letter

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