By Will Evans, California Watch
A controversial West Oakland private school, now reportedly drawing FBI scrutiny, has padded its roster sheets with public school students, according to an Oakland Unified School District investigation.
The district's inquiry aims to determine whether leaders at St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church and private school received federal funds based on inflated enrollment numbers, as reported by California Watch and CBS 5. The school, run by pastor Robert Lacy and his family, has faced criticism for requiring students to solicit donations on the street and for the alleged physical abuse of students, which the school denies.
After Oakland Unified demanded proof of the 195 students St. Andrew claimed to have, the school provided a roster listing 169 students for the 2011-12 school year. But the district's general counsel told board members in a memo this week that 59 of those students were enrolled at least part of the year in public schools. Thirty-six of them, according to the district's findings, attended public schools the entire year.
The district sent its findings to the FBI, whose agents have visited district staff to ask about St. Andrew, according to district spokesman Troy Flint. The FBI would not confirm or deny an investigation.
Oakland Unified also sent letters to the parents of children on the list to confirm whether they were indeed St. Andrew students. Of the five that responded, each said they did not have children attending St. Andrew last year, according to Flint.
"The findings are concerning," Flint said. "We are eager to hear how these discrepancies can be explained."
Marc Guillory, an attorney representing St. Andrew, said some of the district's initial findings were not entirely accurate.
He also presented numerous explanations for cross-over between St. Andrew and public school students: Students could have started the year at St. Andrew and moved to a district school later. Or they could have signed up at St. Andrew, never actually attended the school, yet still remain listed on the roster sheet. Another possibility, Guillory said, is that some of the listed students attended St. Andrew in the 2010-11 school year instead of last year.
Guillory acknowledged that his clients "need to organize their paperwork better," but blamed the district for lacking an established process for determining correct enrollment numbers.
"We're in a verification process and it’s still ongoing," Guillory said. "I’m working with my clients to see what’s going on here. They are cooperating with the district."
The district's general counsel, Jacqueline Minor, said in a board meeting earlier this month that until the district is satisfied with St. Andrew's responses, "we will not engage in a process that will result in further funds to the school."
Board member David Kakishiba said in an email that it "appears that there's a likelihood St. Andrew is practicing fraudulent student enrollment accounting."
Guillory objected to the district singling out St. Andrew.
"There needs to be some questions in the other schools too, not just the African American religious ones," he said. "There needs to be a policy review here, so that these things don’t end up happening, whether it be by mistake or otherwise."
Guillory said the FBI has not attempted to contact his clients.
In a letter last month to the district, Guillory answered allegations from parents and former students of child abuse and exploitation.
"My clients do not condone child physical, mental or emotional abuse of any kind, in any environment, and unequivocally deny all allegations of child abuse or neglect," he wrote. "Moreover, my clients' contend that any fundraising activity, on behalf of parents in need of tuition assistance, was conducted in compliance with child labor laws and standards."
While an Oakland Fire Department inspection determined that St. Andrew's classrooms can only fit 58 people, Guillory said the school also instructs students in the church sanctuary, which can fit 200.
A fire inspection in May found several code violations, including the lack of a fire alarm system. A follow-up inspection last month determined that St. Andrew had not fixed any of the problems, according to inspector Edward Gervasoni.
In addition to the K-12 school, the Lacy family also runs St. Andrew Theological & Academic University, which advertises a host of advanced degrees, out of their church. After California Watch raised the issue, the state last month issued a $50,000 fine against the institution for operating without approval from the Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education. St. Andrew is appealing the citation, according to Guillory.
Will Evans is an investigative journalist for California Watch.