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More questions raised about charter school irregularities



Published: Wed, May 29, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



If there's a way to make money off charter schools, chances are someone in Ohio has figured out how. The latest potential scam involves classifying charter school pupils as learning disabled, thus channeling millions more state dollars into the coffers of the management company that runs eight Summit Academy schools in the state. Of course, children who have learning disabilities are entitled to all the help they need to become educated. But when hundreds of children who were not so labeled at the public schools they attended suddenly become identified as "special education" students, the red flags should be waving furiously.

It's no wonder that 52 House and Senate Democrats are asking Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio superintendent of schools, to investigate the Akron-based Summit academies and its special-education labeling procedures.

However, given the department of education's past inability to oversee the state's charter schools -- known as community schools in Ohio -- the legislators shouldn't rely on Zelman's operation but go straight to Ohio Auditor Jim Petro.

At least the auditor's office has exhibited a healthy skepticism about the financial management of the various charter schools in the state, which resulted in its scathing performance review of the management of Ohio's charter schools by the state Department of Education.

Questionable connection

Petro's auditors can begin by elucidating the connection between the for-profit Academy Management Co. and the non-profit Summit Academy Management Co. Both entities were incorporated in Akron by the same four men: John A. Freiman, Peter M. DiMezza, Donald J. Thorne and James L. Winkleman.

Schools operated by Summit Academy are in Akron, Parma, Lorain, Canton, Middletown and Youngstown, which with 73 pupils is the largest of them all. Close to $1 million in state and local aid has flowed to the Youngstown school alone.

In March, the Education Department determined that DiMezzo, chief executive of the Summit system, had been overpaid $344,100 because half the pupils in the Parma school had been misidentified as learning disabled. If all eight schools have similar problems, the amount overpaid could exceed $2 million.

DiMezzo asserts that his company's evaluation of the children in his schools was legitimate, and that more likely the public schools initial assessments were in error.

Given the amount of additional funding school districts receive for learning-disabled children, we find it almost impossible to believe that public school systems would be so lax in generating needed state support.

Let the Department of Education determine whether Summit's students are, in fact, learning disabled. But let the state Auditor look for the money.




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