Former Delaware charter leader spent lavishly with school money

     (<a href=School supplies, hundred dollar bills via ShutterStock) " title="schoolmoney16x9" width="640" height="360"/>

    (School supplies, hundred dollar bills via ShutterStock)

    The former leader of a Delaware charter school used more than $127,000 in school money on personal purchases, according to a report from the State Auditor.

    That report, released Tuesday, details repeated and brazen misuses of school funds by Noel Rodriguez, the former head of the Academy of Dover in Dover, Delaware, between July 2011 and October 2014.

    Rodriguez’s purchases included nearly $40,000 in electronics, more than $11,000 at restaurants, and nearly $18,000 paid to Verizon Wireless, according to the State Auditor.

    Among the more stunning revelations, the report says Rodriguez bought toy figurines with school money and displayed those figurines in his office at the school. “Displaying such items at the school demonstrates a flagrant disregard for the trust invested in the position and sets a culture ripe for abuse,” the State Auditor’s office said.

    When the auditor’s office informed Rodriguez of its investigation, he returned more than $5,000 worth of goods, including a washer, dryer, camera, scanner, and lawn mower. The State Auditor’s office also said it could not account for an additional $129,000, and that Rodriguez’s financial abuses likely predated the period under investigation.

    The Academy of Dover recently received a year-long probation from the Delaware Department of Education, but was not closed. Its Board of Directors has remained entirely in tact and its new school leader was an assistant principal under Rodriguez.

    That stands in stark contrast to Family Foundations Academy, another Delaware charter where school leaders were recently found to have misused school money. Not only did Family Foundations Academy’s co-leaders both resign, but the entire board stepped down. 

     The State Auditor first received a tip about Academy of Dover on its fraud hotline in August 2014. The next month, Academy of Dover’s board informed the State Auditor that the school’s independent auditor had noticed financial irregularities. Kimeu Boynton, Academy of Dover’s board president, said his body asked the State Auditor to launch a full investigation.

    “There was nothing nefarious done by any board members,” said Boynton. “This was something we immediately reported to the state.”

     The auditor’s report says Rodriguez exploited the school’s “lack of oversight and complete disregard for internal controls” for his personal benefit, once bragging to another employee that he “had the board in his back pocket.”

    The report further criticizes the board and the state’s Department of Education for failing to detect years of financial abuse.

    “A major concern regarding the situation at the [Academy of Dover] is the length of time that passed without any intervention from oversight parties including the Board of Directors, DOE, the independent auditors, Innovative Schools, the Charter School Accountability Committee (CSAC), and Division of Accounting (DOA),” the report says,

    The Department of Education said it had not yet had a chance to review the full report, which runs 25 pages. Calls to a number listed under Rodriguez were not immediately returned.

    Academy of Dover’s problems extend beyond Rodriguez’s conduct. The school also faced potentially fatal financial troubles due to a longstanding lawsuit filed by Mosaica, the school’s former education management company. The school recently told the state’s Department of Education that it had reached a memorandum of understanding with Mosaica that would allow it to repay its debt without risking insolvency.

    “Our finances are in good order. Our enrollment is good,” said Boynton, “We just want to move forward.”

    A full copy of the auditor’s report can be found here.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.