Upcoming fraud trial for school operator hangs over charter school industry

Traverse City businessman Steven Ingersoll had a vision.

An optometrist by profession, he developed a theory that improved “visual thinking” helps improve learning. So in 1999, he founded Grand Traverse Academy, the first of what is now four Michigan charter school campuses. He developed the curriculum for the school ‒ called integrated visual learning ‒ and started a management company to run the school. Ingersoll then borrowed money to build facilities and recruited like-minded optometrists for the school board.

With easy access to Grand Traverse Academy’s taxpayer-funded budget, his management company advanced itself fees from the school’s account, then promised to give back some of his fees when needed to balance the school’s budget.

The budget balanced each year, the school performed at state averages. Meanwhile, neither the school’s board nor Lake Superior State University, the authorizer of the charter school, nor the Michigan Department of Education found anything illegal in the school’s audits.

It was not until lawyers for the school began asking questions that the tangled financial relationship between Ingersoll's management company and the charter he founded began to unravel, culminating in the most significant federal criminal case in the history of Michigan’s 20-year-old charter school industry. Ingersoll, who started Smart Schools Management, Inc., stands accused of illegally diverting construction loan money for another charter school to his private account, in part to pay back money he had taken from the Grand Traverse charter. His hand-picked members on the school board knew he had advanced himself money from Grand Traverse, but had no problem with the arrangement, school records show.

Ingersoll will go on trial next month on seven criminal charges of bank fraud and tax evasion. The allegations of financial self-dealing and cozy relations between Ingersoll, his associates and board members could not come at a worse time for the Michigan charter movement. The state’s powerful, mostly for-profit charter school industry has found itself on the defensive since the Detroit Free Press published a devastating series last June chronicling how charters receive nearly $1 billion a year in state taxpayer money with little accountability or transparency on how that money is spent. The series detailed how board members at some charter schools were forced out when they pushed to learn more about finances from management companies, and how state law failed to prevent self-enrichment by those operating some low-performing charter schools.

The series prompted state schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan to threaten to suspend charter school authorizers that do a poor job of overseeing their charter schools. Lake Superior State University oversees charters founded by Ingersoll, Bay City Academy and Grand Traverse Academy, and is one of 11 authorizers that Flanagan has said he is considering suspending.

In December, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers rated Michigan's charter school law lowest in accountabililty among states with numerous authorizors. NACSA also derided Michigan’s charter school law for not requiring the closure of charter schools that don’t meet minimum state academic standards.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group, said the NACSA study has it all wrong and Michigan’s laws allow more oversight and accountability than in traditional public schools.

“It’s important to look at behavior,” Quisenberry said. “Our closure rate (for low-performing charter schools) in Michigan is higher, way above the national average. That’s healthy. I think there are checks and balances for providing consequences.”

One loan feeds another

The criminal charges stem from Ingersoll taking out a $1.8 million loan in 2010 to convert a church to house the Bay City Academy charter school in Bay City. His federal indictment says he diverted $934,000 of it through several channels into his personal bank account and used part of that to repay money he had advanced to himself from the Grand Traverse Academy.

The federal investigation led Smart Schools and Grand Traverse Academy to cut the financial relationship, leaving Grand Traverse Academy with a shortfall of $365,000, and landing it on the state's growing list of 55 school districts in deficit.

“Smart Schools is a poster child for bad management,” said state Rep. Charles Brunner, D-Bay City, a former teacher and longtime critic of the state’s charter school system. “If this happened in public schools, the public would be up in arms. We need legislation to say what charter schools have to do to conform. I’m so frustrated.”

Since Ingersoll’s indictment last spring, Brunner co-sponsored legislation that would require more transparency and accountability from charter management companies.

Brunner is critical not only of the financial misconduct alleged in the Ingersoll indictment but also of the academic performance of many charters. While Grand Traverse has performed relatively well, Bay City Academy in Brunner’s district, is among the state’s worst-performing schools.

Jan Geht, Ingersoll's attorney, does not contest the fed’s portrayal of how money flowed between the school and Ingersoll's company. Geht argues, however, that the transactions did not violate any laws. He also notes that neither the authorizer, Lake Superior State University, intermediate school district, nor the Michigan Department of Education found any problems with the way the school's finances were handled since its inception in 1999.

"They all reviewed the financial statements; no one thought there were any issues with it," Geht said. "Our position is that there was nothing improper. It was permitted and allowable."

Grand Traverse falls into deficit

Ingersoll began planning the Grand Traverse Academy in 1996, co-signing for the mortgage and equipment leases, and depositing money to help keep the school afloat over the years, according to a statement released by the school board in response to the indictment.

Grand Traverse Academy does some things "a little differently than other schools," according to the school's website. The curriculum is based in part on Integrated Visual Learning, a learning concept that Ingersoll himself created through his background in eye care.

According to an organization Ingersoll founded, integrated visual learning uses visual and light therapy to help students’ “visual thinking” to treat learning disabilities and maximize the capacity to learn.

Ingersoll has traveled to discuss his learning technique but it has not been scientifically reviewed, accredited or endorsed by educational experts or institutions. IVL is used only in schools affiliated with Ingersoll.

In 2011, Ingersoll obtained a $1.8 million line of credit from Chemical Bank to convert a church into a second charter school, the Bay City Academy, according to the indictment. Ingersoll and his partners, wife, and brother (a subcontractor on the project), are accused of funneling $934,000 of that construction loan to the Ingersolls’ personal joint bank account, part of which was to pay off money he owed the Grand Traverse Academy “from advances Steven Ingersoll had made to himself.”

Audits of the Grand Traverse charter school show that Smart Schools Management had been permitted to prepay itself fees from Grand Traverse Academy at the beginning of each year, before the contemplated services were rendered. The board allowed these prepayments to the management company, explaining that the arrangement was reasonable given that Smart Schools had taken on debt to start the school.

Over the years, the school spent more than it took in, so Ingersoll would promise to “rebate” - or give back - some of his management fees and make a lease contribution so the school could show a balanced budget at the end of the year. The prepayments, rebates and contributions resulted in conflicting claims about how much the company owed the school in promised rebates and how much the school owed the company in management fees.

In June 2013, an attorney for the school sent a demand letter to Ingersoll claiming he owed the school $3.5 million. An audit for the 2013 fiscal year accused Smart Schools of "abuse" for prepaying itself with the school's money and said the management fees were more than the school could afford. Ingersoll’s attorneys responded with claims that the school owed Smart Schools $2.2 million.

In 2014, the school had expected to get $1.6 million from Smart Schools Management to help balance the books, but the school board said it would write off the money owed as a loss when the school severed its ties with the company about a month before Ingersoll was indicted. As a result, the school recorded a deficit of roughly $365,000 in June.

The Grand Traverse Academy board continues to support Ingersoll even though its business dealing with Ingersoll left the school school in deficit. The school board and current management company say they are thankful to Ingersoll for keeping the school afloat for so many years and insist the deficit does not mean there were problems with accountability or oversight at the school.

The school board’s continued support for Ingersoll is perhaps not surprising. Over the years, the board has been populated by other optometrists who admired Ingersoll.

Grand Traverse’s new school board president, Bradley Habermehl, an optometrist in Flint, called the April indictment "old news" and said the school was able to avoid cuts and keep class sizes small due to Ingersoll’s management.

“The board was definitely appreciative of Steve’s philanthropy and help staying out of deficit,” Habermehl said in an interview. “This school was his baby, not a Ponzi scheme or way of ripping off money. He certainly wasn’t trying to get rich by scamming the school. Whatever the school owed the company or the company owed the school is no longer at issue.” The school doesn’t expect the company to pay up and has no plans to pay Ingersoll’s company anything further.

“All deals are off,” Habermehl said.

Associates take the baton

Optometrist Mark Noss helped Ingersoll develop the curriculum for the school and was the school board president for about five years. Ingersoll founded the Excel Institute in Traverse City, a clinic that specializes in Integrated Visual Learning that is now owned by Noss and another former board member.

The Excel Institute touts a non-peer-reviewed study by Ingersoll that says integrated visual learning is a treatment for learning disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. As a result of the learning technique, "90% of the 54 students taking physician prescribed Ritalin for behavior, learning and attention problems were weaned off the drug and found success in the classroom among their peers," the study stated.

Just before Ingersoll was indicted, Noss started Full Spectrum Management and was given a no-bid contract to be the new management company for Grand Traverse Academy.

In an interview, Noss also remains supportive of Ingersoll, saying that Ingersoll’s management had allowed Grand Traverse to avoid cuts, maintain quality, continue teachers’ annual raises and keep class sizes at 21 students. He said that if there was a problem that the audits correctly pointed out, it was the prepayments. The school should not have allowed the management company to prepay itself at the beginning of each year before the management services were rendered, Noss said. That practice was discontinued after the 2013 audit, he said.

Noss said even though he and Ingersoll developed the curriculum for the school, it was not a conflict of interest for him to be a board member responsible for overseeing Ingersoll’s management of the school through Smart Schools. The school paid Smart Schools for management and also paid a fee for use of the curriculum.

“I don’t view that as a conflict of interest,” Noss said. “We never owned a business together. I was not getting financially compensated.”

Nick Oshelski, executive director for the Lake Superior State University charter school office that oversees Grand Traverse Academy, said the exchange of money between the school and management company was never an issue because the audits were problem-free each year until 2013. After the 2013 audit that found the board was prepaying more fees than the school could afford, the authorizer asked the department of education if the process was illegal.

The Department of Education questioned the board’s judgment but did not conclude that anything was illegal in the payment arrangement.

Lake Superior State said it is waiting to see if the trial reveals illegal activity at the charter school. The authorizer doesn’t know the particulars about how the money flowed between the Grand Traverse Academy and Ingersoll’s company or why the school and the company each said the other owes it money, Oshelski said.

“I really can’t give you an answer as to how that happened. We try to watch to make sure these things aren’t going to happen. We’re human and sometimes things slip through the cracks,” he said. “Naturally we’re going to be even more vigilant, not only with Grand Traverse Academy, but our other academies to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

MDE: Out of our hands

Ingersoll's trial starts Feb. 10 in Bay City. Ingersoll's wife, brother and two others also were indicted. If convicted, they could be required to repay proceeds from the alleged scheme or forfeit property. The bank fraud charges carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

The charges and potential penalties make it the most serious federal criminal case involving a Michigan charter school since the state legalized charter schools in 1994, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

Under current Michigan law, MDE has no legal authority to investigate or correct financial transactions at Grand Traverse Academy or prevent any for-profit company from sinking a charter school into deficit. The state superintendent can only suspend the charter’s authorizer, Lake Superior State, from opening more charter schools if oversight is poor.

"It's my understanding that the authorizer (Lake Superior State) is engaged in this (oversight) process. I don't know what they're doing because they don't have to tell us," said Mark Eitrem, supervisor of the the Michigan Department of Education's charter school office. "We're waiting to see what the authorizer does to address the issue.”

Quisenberry, of MAPSA, said the response from the Grand Traverse board and authorizer when audit questions were raised shows that Michigan already provides sufficient charter oversight.

“From what I understand the checks and balances have worked. The board took action, the authorizer took action and there have been charges,” Quisenberry said. “We need to let the laws and accountability in place through those laws work. ... he could be innocent.”

Geht, Ingersoll's attorney, said the problem with Michigan's charter school law is that it does not allow charters to seek funding from taxpayers for buildings. As a result, schools contract with private firms that acquire facilities, assume risk and expect to be compensated.

The school would not have had a building, would have recorded deficits in prior years and likely would have closed if Ingersoll had not taken on debt and rebated the management fees, he said.

Through it all, the school continues to enroll more than 1,200 students in grades K-12. It ranks in the 44th percentile (which means 56 percent of schools rank higher). Its third-grade reading and ACT composite scores are roughly the same as state averages, though it has 23 percent low-income students compared with 48 percent statewide.

Cindy Evans, 36, of Traverse City, and her husband, Brent, chose Grand Traverse Academy in 2010 for their daughter based on recommendations from people at their church. They liked the fact that the school had uniforms, the classes integrated children from different grades, and the teachers are dedicated.

Though satisfied with the school environment and teachers, Evans said she started asking questions and attending board meetings after Ingersoll’s case hit the media. She said she was shocked by the financial transactions and hopes the school won’t have to close or cut teachers as a result of the deficit.

“These prepayments, missing money, conflicts of interest, and lack of transparency is what gives (charter schools) a bad name,” she said.

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Thu, 01/08/2015 - 10:20am
Tho I'm sure some had high ideals and good intent, tax money with little oversight must have brought out schemers. Our kids as a cash crop! Another form of child abuse.
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 11:40am
These folks will be fined big money for what they have done, but what about all the children that slip through the cracks and are worse off then before - like the Fennville Charter school that closed without any warning to parents! Has anyone looked into all the charter schools Dick Devos (Amway) is setting up all over the state? It is so sad when I heard on NPR the other day, that "Grand Rapids has a bigger public high school drop-out rate than Flint public high schools." It is because folks like De Vos won't help the local school children, and they just invest in their own private charter schools. The so called "richest city in Michigan, with 4 percent unemployment." Unlike their neighbor 30 miles south that has the "Kalamazoo Promise" for each and every child in Kalamazoo including the private christian schools which helps all children succeed! No discrimination there all children have a chance to go to college.
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 11:41am
OMG!! Great, let's set up charter schools throughout the state, have no oversight and let's see what happens. Private charters have no accountability, do whatever they want regarding funding and have no transparency as to what they are doing. Let's add to this that folks can do this with any type of idea regarding curriculum and instruction and this is ok? When are we going to stop this nonsense..oh no wait let's do the EAA thing in Detroit..no wait that didn't work but let's keep trying. Charter schools are a joke and those who support them are clueless. WAKE UP MICHIGAN!!!
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 11:50am
Headline in bold letters; "Michigan Education Association threat to file an unfair labor practice complaint against the Northport Public Schools hangs over the Public School scheme."
Richard Steiger
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 1:02pm
What is your point Erwin? Is it that public school employees should not be permitted to form unions? Or is it that if they do form a union, it should not be allowed to represent them? Or are you saying that, in the event the local school board negotiates a contract with their employees, the board and its representatives are the sole determiners of if and how its terms should be enforced?
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 6:56pm
I was mocking the bombastic tone of the headline of this article.
Ted O'Neil
Fri, 01/09/2015 - 9:03am
Erwin, Excellent point. I don't think I've ever seen a similar headline for any story involving similar accusations/legal proceedings against anyone involved with a conventional public school.
John Smith
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 12:14pm
The Northwest Michigan Council of Governments and Networks Northwest (AKA Northwest Michigan Works!) who also receive public money should be investigated for similar fraud. Although they are not under the MDE, there is abuse going on there. The GAO does not have jurisdiction over them so they get away with unbelievable fraud with your $$$.
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 2:18pm
Not sure who you are, John Smith, but you are terribly misinformed. Networks Northwest (formerly Northwest Michigan Council of Governments) which includes Michigan Works and several other programs, is NOT committing any fraud or financial abuse of any kind. This agency is heavily monitored and audited by many federal and state departments, in addition to CPAs. We are one of the most heavily monitored and audited organizations in the state. We follow a large set of legal and financial guidelines from multiple state and federal departments, and have NEVER been found to have any misspent funds in our 40 year history. Check your sources, sir. You are getting very inaccurate and biased information. I don't think our esteemed board of directors would appreciate your false accusations.
John S.
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 12:37pm
One of the downsides of privatization is opportunism--delivering far less than promised. That seems to be the case with many charter schools in the state. It's not an easy job carefully monitoring charter schools and the state's public universities don't seem up to the difficult job of doing it.
Charlene Schlueter
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 12:45pm
Yet another "gift" to Michigan's public school districts from the Engler administration. The first "gift" was implementing a recession-susceptible school funding mechanism that still fails to equalize school funding.
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 1:55pm
I absolutely understand the need for financial as well as academic responsibility needed for private schools. My fear here, however, is that Dr. ingersoll's theory concerning the benefits of visual therapy will be disregarded due to this (at best) financial miscommunication. This would be sad, indeed, as I have seen the benefits of this therapy. My daughter went through this process while it was in it's infancy. She credits the process with true positive transition in her academic trials. As a matter of fact, she is in her 13th year of being a middle school learning disabilities teacher here in Northern Michigan. I am with others who believe Dr. Ingersoll's intent was never to enrich himself, but rather improve lives of struggling students. Rules and regulations for private schools need to be made implicit for those taking on such challenges.
Thu, 03/17/2016 - 7:55am
I agree, Carol. My son was diagnosed at 2 1/2 with autism ... He did the light therapy as well. He is now 20, drives, has a job, and is a fabulously talented drummer. He is considering college. I hate to see a brilliant man like Dr. Steve Ingersoll be lost amidst financial turmoil and confusion. Reading so many negative comments and blogs, I see how most have made him out to be a con artist and a fraud, but one does not accomplish greatness in helping struggling children without the heart being in the right place. People make mistakes. When dealing with such large amounts of money at a high level of managing multiple business transactions and implementing great vision to build a community, the opportunity for mistakes is great. So many others seem to think they could have done better, but have they even attempted a third of what Dr. Ingersoll has completed successfully that seems to be forgotten? Do people understand the humility that takes place when a person's life is studied and judged by the opinions and criticisms of others without the people understanding all of the facts and challenges that impacted the decisions made? The strain must be tremendous on this family. I don't know if the sentencing took place yesterday or not, but I pray that the Ingersoll's find peace, restoration, and closure.
Martha Toth
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 2:29pm
Dan Quisenberry, the charter apologist, keeps saying that Michigan charters have "more oversight and accountability than traditional public schools." Repeating it doesn't make it true. The pay and benefits for every employee of my district are FOIAed and printed by a local paper annually; try getting that info for a charter. The detailed budgets are available, too; charter budgets pretty much tell you that most of the money went to the for-profit management company, with no expenditure detail. And the charter closure rate he touts as an indicator of accountability may be unrelated to academic performance. Often, it happens because the operators were not making the profits they'd hoped, and closures without warning leave students, parents, and traditional districts in the lurch.
Plan 9 From Out...
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 3:42pm
Ingersoll's attorney, Geht, claims: "The school would not have had a building, would have recorded deficits in prior years and likely would have closed if Ingersoll had not taken on debt and rebated the management fees." The first claim is wildly overstated…and completely crazy: neither SSM or Ingersoll took on any debt on behalf of the GTA. Geht’s statement also omits the importance of two bond issues: 2002 ($9.1 million) and 2007 ($16.2 million), which were issued to finance the acquisition of the GTA building and its subsequent expansion.
James A. McKimmy
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 3:45pm
Public education has benefited from large bodies of research on how children learn, age appropriate instruction, teaching methodolgy, curriculum assessment and asundry other topics related to the improvement of the learning processes in our communities. Our universities offer research based graduate programs to advance improvement in our efforts to prepare young people to meet the challenges that they will meet. Our communities stretch their financial resources to provide the best that they can afford. Now comes the claims of individuals and corporations advancing silver bullets that will resolve all of problems students face in our communities, armed with unrestricted Charter School laws they claim public funds to implement their untested theories. So what if they fail, its only our most valuable resource our children that are injured. Who cares, the corporations and private managers of these Charter Schools have made their profits. How did we slip up and allow our legislators to be so duped by the profit motive that our children have been put at risk by these new public policies when we could have been guided by the vast understanding of the educational processes by established bodies of research. Perhaps we have been unwilling to meet the needs of our schools when it might appear to require added support. We have taken the easy road and followed the promises of those who offer more at less cost. The more turns out to be their profits. Our children are the ones who have been short changed.
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 8:43pm
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 4:30pm
If found guilty, Ingersoll should be punished as harshly as a judge is allowed. However, the issue of fraud is found in public schools as well... Apparently the author's short-term memory has forgotten the ISD super who was having an affair and using public dollars to hide it... see mlive story: http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2012/08/gisd_administrator_acc...
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 01/08/2015 - 4:46pm
PA 451 governs Charters as it governs traditional public schools. Same law, same rules. Contracts between private entities and Charter school board, public entities bound by the same oath of office as elected boards, are public documents. The Free Press series was an expose hit piece not grounded in reality since it ignored all the public information available on the MDE web site for PSAs and all the factual information provided by charter schools and other organizations and individuals. The so called national organization ranking individual state authorizes did so by creating eight policies that they believe should apply, ignoring all the law,regulation and policy already in place. Finally, this person is innocent until proven guilty.
John Q. Public
Fri, 01/09/2015 - 12:42am
"It was permitted and allowed." Yet another reminder that it isn't the illegal activities that we should be most wary of; it's the LEGAL ones.
Sat, 01/10/2015 - 11:24pm
If they continue investigating this school they will find more of the same. It is shocking what is happening there.
Sun, 01/11/2015 - 11:06pm
This is a rather unfortunate turn of events. I am a student who went to GTA from 5th grade until I graduated in 2011. I was able to skip 6th grade and go straight to 7th grade while at GTA. While I was attending the public schools, although I excelled in every subject and wasn't learning much in school due to that fact, the public school system wouldn't let me skip a grade and lose out on the extra year of state funding they got for my education. I may not have liked the school uniforms (how many teenagers really do) but the education I got there was much more hands on and detailed than It would have been at the public schools. I didn't have much interaction with Dr. Ingersol while I was at school, but I hope that this legal mess does not affect the education of all the children still attending the academy.
Mon, 01/12/2015 - 10:02am
For those students for whom it works, vision therapy integrated with academic instruction can be life-changing. While Ingersoll's specific techniques may not have been researched and published in peer-reviewed journals, vision therapy as prescribed by developmental optometrists has. It doesn't help every kid diagnosed with ADHD, but it does improve academic functioning for many. Since vision therapy is still rarely covered by insurance, families have had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to treat their kids, but the difference in a kids's ability to read, pay attention and remember can be astounding. You can find out if vision therapy is producing results in about 3 months, but the full course of treatment usually takes between 1 and 3 years. Charter schools in Michigan are subject to exactly the same laws and regulations on financial reporting and transparency as traditional public school districts are. The management company that provides my local school district with speech and language therapists, psychologists, and some categories of special education teachers doesn't reveal details of their employee compensation, even though their employees work with students and staff in publicly funded schools, and ALL their revenue is derived from education tax dollars. Details of the contract between the school district and the specialist management company are not available for the public to examine. That is EXACTLY the same disclosure requirements that charter school management companies operate under. In contrast, the contract under which SLPs, psychologists and teachers, including special education teachers work directly for the school district is available for public review. Jack Quisenberry is right; the checks and balances in the system worked. A poor practice was flagged by an outside audit. and the appointed school board changed their practice. The audit results alerted the charter authorizer, who investigated and reenforced the change in the inappropriate practice. Someone, somewhere, filed a complaint, Federal authorities investigated and have obtained an indictment. As even this sensationalized article says, this particular issue is " the most significant federal criminal case in the history of Michigan’s 20-year-old charter school industry." But what was described here doesn't look like criminal wrong-doing to me at all. It looks like a doctor of optometry who didn't employee a full-time accountant to keep track of the sources and uses of all of the money associated with each specific charter school, foundation for curriculum development and his personal resources. The same personal resources from which he has repeatedly donated significant amounts to start and continue a unique charter school, and was working to start another. This sounds to me like an anti-charter school witch hunt. Steven Ingersoll appears to be being hounded by a Federal prosecutor with an animus against charter schools and their founders, with the flames of public controversy being fanned by Bridge and the Detroit Free Press. If the court finds any wrong-doing at trial, I predict it will involve possibly negligent mingling taxable and tax-exempt funds in Ingersoll's personal or professional accounts, but without malicious intent.
Plan 9 From Out...
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 9:19am
From its improper usage of the legal term, "malicious intent", to its baseless supposition that Steven Ingersoll's federal prosecution is merely an "anti-charter school witch hunt", the commentary by Anna is undermined by its nconsistent logic and a weak grasp of key facts. It is true that most insurance companies do not cover so-called vision therapy because they consider the use of visual information processing evaluations experimental and investigational because its clinical value has not been established. In the August 2007 issue of "Pediatrics", the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Ophthalmology came down hard on what they called "scientifically unsupported" alternative treatments. "Ineffective, controversial methods of treatment such as vision therapy may give parents and teachers a false sense of security that a child's learning difficulties are being addressed, may waste family and/or school resources, and may delay proper instruction or remediation," they cautioned." With out-of-pocket costs for visual therapy visit averaging around $75.00, the cost for a "full course of treatment" could easily exceed $10,000--even for once-weekly visits. And while it's true that every school district here in Michigan must provide "transparency reports", there is an undeniable gap between charter schools (public school academies) and traditional public school districts. A few years ago, the Michigan Legislature mandated that every school district post "transparency reports," that include a list of employees making more than $100,000; copies of union contracts; information on employer-sponsored health-care plans; a breakdown of how much is spent on salaries and benefits. However, if you compare charter school state-mandated transparency reports you'll find that they're much more opaque than what you see on sites for traditional school districts. There is, for instance, no breakdown of what is spent on salaries and benefits; that amount is listed as "$0," under the argument that employees are paid by a management company that, as a private organizations, are not required to provide that information. And Michigan's charter law does not prevent insider deals or self-enrichment by charter-school operators. Traditional school districts are overseen by publicly elected boards who must answer to local voters and are subject to recall. By contrast, charter school boards are cherry-picked, not elected and rarely act as independent overseers of taxpayer money. At the Grand Traverse Academy, the current board includes two out-of-town "visual learning" optometrists, including one who apparently licenses the Steve Ingersoll trademarked "Excel Institute" program in Macomb County. The "poor practice" Anna refers to continued for nearly 13 years, and was accompanied by another years-long pattern of "related party receivables"--the racking up over a period of five years an amount the government alleges to be $3.5 million dollars. In one of its court motions, the Assistant US Attorney used the term "embezzlement" to describe the financial scheme Steven Ingersoll now refers to as "loans". And Ingersoll's fraud case? Although the government has not revealed the impetus for its investigation into Ingersoll's financial schemes, the April 2014 fraud indictment was proceeded by an asbestos mishandling case at the Bay City Academy. It's likely there may have been inside information provided to the government, but the federal investigation took years. One of Ingersoll's fraud co-defendants, Roy C. Bradley, Sr., was convicted on four felony counts in the asbestos case. Even though the old joke claims "you can indict a ham sandwich", there's much more than cold cuts, condiments and cheese in this case. Anna's claim that Ingersoll--who employs (among many others) his daughter-in-law as a financial manager, along with a bevy of attorneys, certified public accountants, and private investigators--was just too busy to keep track of all his cash is just ludicrous. Repeating the long-debunked Ingersoll as a "philanthropist" claim, Anna forgets to acknowledge the nearly $100 million Michigan taxpayers dumped into the Academy. Claiming that the article is just "sensationalized", Anna refuses to recognize that this case is ”the most significant federal criminal case in the history of Michigan’s 20-year-old charter school industry.” It is. Just read the indictment if you don't believe me, and you see that the government alleges Ingersoll “diverted $934,000 of it [money] through several channels into his personal bank account and used part of that to repay money he had advanced to himself from the Grand Traverse Academy.” But I'll take your prediction on the outcome of Ingersoll's trial--I'm betting on convictions on all seven counts.
Wed, 02/11/2015 - 1:09pm
I will not comment on the rest, but I have to address your comments on vision therapy. I have been a vision therapist for ten years and all of my students have improved. Your 2007 reference is out of date, since there have been studies since (see the CITT study from 2008, for example). I do wish that vision therapy would quit getting thrown under the bus due to this man's choices. And for the record, IVL is simply vision therapy with a cognitive/academic finish. It works and it changes the lives of kids every single day.
Thu, 12/31/2015 - 11:10am
Well stated summary of this matter
Tue, 01/13/2015 - 6:11am
Yes, we need financial accountability and cash flow transparency. These are fixable items. I wish we would highlight all public schools that continue not to educate and highlight all the students that come from a culture that doesn't value education. Or how about Southfield Public Schools. They are always in the top 5 for State Per Pupil Spending and yet they meet state averages for testing at best.
Thu, 12/31/2015 - 12:01pm
We have created an incredible tangled mess of public school funding, regulation and administration in this country. Gone are the days of engaged parents and local community leaders elected to positions on school boards with the ability to appeal to their own voters to fund public schools as a matter of community pride. Now unions, partisan legislatures, and special interests like text book publishers and testing agencies have taken control of public education. Charter schools, while far from perfect, are an attempt to wrestle back some of this control to those individuals on ground level who are working every day in hands on roles in education who are frustrated with the status quo. "Profit" has become a dirty word in this country. Profit is the result of competent managers taking risks, creating efficiency in products and processes, demanding value for dollars spent on goods and services. Profit is used to re-invest in companies, ideas and institutions to make them better. Choice for parents is never a bad thing.
Plan 9 From Out...
Sun, 01/03/2016 - 8:17am
"Charter schools, while far from perfect, are an attempt to wrestle back some of this control to those individuals on ground level who are working every day in hands on roles in education who are frustrated with the status quo. “Profit” has become a dirty word in this country. Profit is the result of competent managers taking risks, creating efficiency in products and processes, demanding value for dollars spent on goods and services. Profit is used to re-invest in companies, ideas and institutions to make them better. Choice for parents is never a bad thing." Private profits from public payments have swamped what may have been a good idea. With Walmart (in the form of the Walton Family Foundation) sponsoring symposiums for investors interested in the charter school section, it's clear whose really in charge -- and it isn't "engage parents and local community leaders".