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Dove Charter Schools, foundation under scrutiny for financial irregularities

Tim Farley / Red Dirt Report
Dove Science Academy on 23rd Street in Oklahoma City.
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Schools linked to controversial Gulen movement

OKLAHOMA CITY – State and Oklahoma City education officials are staying as quiet as possible in the wake of a scandalous audit that discovered financial irregularities on the part of Sky Foundation, the non-profit entity that founded Dove Charter Schools 14 years ago.

Two schools – Dove Science Academy and Dove Science Academy Elementary School – are located in Oklahoma City and two separate Dove schools are based in Tulsa.

Deanna Silk, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, made only a brief comment about the audit conducted by State Auditor & Inspector Gary Jones. The audit was released March 16.

“We are concerned about it and are cooperating,” she said.

However, Silk would not say which government agencies the education department is working with. With some exceptions, charter schools fall under the guidance of the state department of education.

Mark Myers, spokesman for Oklahoma City Public Schools, said officials there “are aware of the situation and are looking into it.”

“We will look at the audit and a decision will be made by the Board of Education regarding the status of Dove schools,” he said. “We are still reviewing the audit.”

Oklahoma City public schools are the local sponsor for the two Dove charter schools in Oklahoma City and Langston University is the sponsor for the two Tulsa charter schools. Langston spokeswoman Christina Gray did not return a telephone call for comment.

Although Silk was tight-lipped about the investigation’s specific findings, she confirmed in an email that charter school sponsors, such as the Oklahoma City school district and Langston, can terminate the contract if the charter school fails to meet student-performance requirements, demonstrates improper fiscal management or violates state or federal law.

Sponsors are required to give at least 90 days written notice to the charter school’s governing board before terminating the contract.

Drew Edmondson, attorney for Dove Charter Schools, said Wednesday Dove Charter Schools committed no wrongdoing.

“The audit didn’t find any irregularities,” he said.

A source with knowledge about the case told Red Dirt Report the Dove Academy investigation is part of a broader, national probe that involves the FBI. Special Agent Terry B. Weber, the FBI spokesman in Oklahoma City, did not return a phone call for comment on Tuesday.

However, previous reports have suggested a link between Dove schools, Harmony Public Schools in Houston and the Gulen movement, which has an international following that promotes education and teachings of peace and interfaith respect taught by Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic Turkish scholar. However, the movement has come under scrutiny for questionable lobbying and financial practices.

The Dove Charter School Board and superintendent are predominantly people of Turkish descent. The school board president is Bilal Erturk, the secretary is Serkan Ozturk and the treasurer is Sharon Akdeniz. The school superintendent is Umit Alpaslan.

Auditors discovered the Sky Foundation spent $175,000 of public funds for sponsorship of a science fair at Harmony Public Schools in which no Dove Charter School students attended.

“This was not a legitimate school purpose, an apparent violation of both the school’s charter and Oklahoma Constitution,” auditors wrote. “The expenditure of $175,000 of public funds to sponsor an out-of-state competition did not appear to have a legitimate school purpose or benefit the Dove Charter School students of Oklahoma.”

Edmondson claims Dove Charter School students were eligible to attend the science fair but chose not to travel to Houston.

Auditors discovered Sky Foundation made payments of $100,000 and $75,000 to Harmony Public Schools, a charter school in Houston, Texas, for sponsorship of I-SWEEP competitions, a science fair open to high school students worldwide. The payments were made in 2013 and 2014, the audit showed. In 2014, Sky Foundation was listed as a corporate sponsor for the event.

Linking schools to Gulen

Two years ago, 60 Minutes and the website Truth in Media, reported a link between Gulen-inspired schools and the diversion of money from a network of Gulen charter schools back to the Gulen movement. In some cases, Truth in Media reported, teachers were instructed to return as much as 40 percent of their salaries back to the school for a secret fund used by the Gulen movement.

Asked about the reports, Edmondson said, “I have no idea what teachers do with their money after getting paid.”

According to the 2014 Truth in Media report, those allegations prompted U.S. law enforcement agencies to investigate claims of immigration fraud, misuse of taxpayer money and the actual intent of the Gulen school network.

But this wouldn’t be the only instance of controversy surrounding the Gulen network. In the past, Gulen followers and sponsors have paid for trips to Turkey taken by current and former U.S. and Oklahoma public officials under the pretext they were visiting Gulen schools and discussing opportunities for interfaith cooperation.

For example, documents show then-U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin approved the Turkey trip for two staffers in August 2008 at a cost of $3,400 each. U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas also sent a staff member to Turkey at a cost of $3,400 to the sponsor. The event, the Rumi Forum for Interfaith Dialogue, lasted five days and is considered to be part of the Gulen Movement. The Rumi Forum spent at least $73,980 to pay for the trips of congressional staffers, but declared zero dollars in expenses for the 2008 event on the IRS Form 990, according to the website The Rumi Forum also declared no money was spent in lobbying expenses.

Other Oklahoma elected and appointed officials have attended Gulen Movement events, ranging from 2008 to 2014. In July 2013, then-Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs chief Rita Aragon, state Rep. John Trebilcock, Rep. Tom Newell and state Sen. Cliff Aldridge, accompanied by his wife Deeann Aldridge, made the trip to Turkey for a Gulen-sponsored event.

In 2008 and 2009, Secretary of State Susan Savage, then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson, Darrell Weaver, director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and Tom Jordan, deputy director of the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation attended the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue, reports show. Norman Police Chief Phil Cotton made the same trip in 2014.

Critics of the free trips and the Gulen movement said local and state public officials are not required to report international trips when they are not paid with government funds. The Gulen lobby is the first foreign lobby to target state and local officials on such a large scale, documents show. Congressmen are required to report trips paid for by foreign governments.

Audit findings

Dove Charter Schools and the Sky Foundation may be facing similar skepticism as the Gulen movement. State auditors discovered the founder of Dove Science Academy charged the Oklahoma City high school more than $3 million in lease payments for the building it uses in the Uptown District.

The school, located at 919 NW 23rd, paid $3,182,000 in lease payments in excess of the original purchase price of the property, the audit shows. The school’s managing non-profit, Sky Foundation, bought the property in July 2001 for $628,000.

“If those figures are even correct, all that money, every penny, was spent on the schools,” Edmondson said. “What private land owner quits charging (rent) when the loan is paid? The auditors held Sky to a standard I’ve never seen before.

Auditors found the Sky Foundation collected $1.1 million more in lease payments from the Dove Charter Schools than was due on the property leases for the time period July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2014.

“Since Sky and the schools are essentially the same entity, the lease agreements are in essence the transfer of funds to themselves, a redirection of funds from the school bank accounts to the Sky Foundation’s bank account,” auditors wrote.

Auditors also criticized Sky Foundation for collecting lease payments from each of the Dove Charter Schools and using that financial information to obtain loans.

The state audit found Sky Foundation does not operate as a school foundation, but is the managing non-profit for the Dove Charter Schools, which is one and the same.

“Sky’s only income was public funds received through lease agreements with their own schools. We did not find any evidence of Sky soliciting funds on behalf of the schools or donating funds to the schools. It appears the schools were supporting Sky instead of Sky supporting schools,” the auditors wrote.

However, Edmondson took exception with that comment from the auditors.

“I strenuously disagree they are the same organization,” he said. “One is the schools and the other is a private non-profit.”

Typically, school foundations raise money through private donations or events to support the schools in a particular district.

Apparently, there was plenty of blame for everyone involved with Dove Charter Schools, auditors discovered. The audit shows the schools’ sponsors did not appear to provide adequate oversight as required by law.

“Sponsors could not provide documentation of compliance with required monitoring practices,” auditors wrote. “The Oklahoma City Schools recently hired a Charter Schools Instruction Leadership director to assist in their charter school monitoring process. Both sponsors should consider developing and maintaining monitoring systems that will aid them in accomplishing their statutorily required duties.”

The entire audit covered the time period July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2014. The audit was requested in November 2014 by then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Baressi.

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Tim Farley

Tim Farley is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience, including...

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