Charter school founders charged with stealing $500K

A founder of a charter school in Northwest Philadelphia will go to court today on grand jury charges for allegedly using public funds to prop up her Mt. Airy businesses, personal expenses, and a private school in Germantown.

New Media Technology co-founder, Ina Walker, of Mt. Airy, faces the 27-count indictment with Hugh Clark who is a co-founder of the school and its former board president.

According to the indictment issued today by U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger, the pair diverted $522,000 of taxpayer money to their personal and business ventures including the Black Olive health food store and restaurant in Mt. Airy, and a total of $1 million to the Germantown private school Lotus Academy, which Clark also founded.

The indictment alleges the pair routinely used public money meant for New Media to supplement the operation of the Black Olive, Lotus Academy and their personal needs.  The indictment says a worker at  Black Olive was paid using New Media checks, and that food for Lotus Academy was paid for in the New Media budget. It also cites instances when New Media’s credit cards were used to buy things at neighborhood stores, including the ACME on Germantown Avenue and the Wine and Spirits Shop.

Over the last several years New Media was in such financial trouble that at one point it failed to pay teacher retirement contributions for over a year. The leadership structure of the school was so weak that board meetings were rarely advertised, often cancelled, and sometimes were conducted without a legal quorum.

As a condition of charter reauthorization in 2009 the School Reform Commission forced Clark and Walker to resign from New Media in December of that year, and forced a total replacement of the board and leadership at the school last summer.

The school maintained decent academic performance ratings for most of this time, helping a high percentage of its seniors gain placement in college, until last year when it failed to make yearly progress benchmarks on state tests.

Now the Cedarbrook-area school operates under new leadership.

Among the initial financial backers for New Media was the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation, which was founded by Rep. Dwight Evans (D. Phila.). OARC later bought the Mt. Airy nightclub North by Northwest from a group of investors that included Clark and Walker, and months later closed the business after a dispute with its landlord.

Clark was arrested yesterday and is out on bail to await his trial. Walker will appear in her bail hearing this afternoon. The trials will likely begin over the next few weeks.

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