Charter school director may face embezzlement charges

  • Updated: August 8, 2008 - 11:29 PM

Joel Pourier of Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth school was jailed overnight then released while charges are weighed. More than $160,000 is missing from the Minneapolis school, an audit found.

After spending the night in the Hennepin County jail, Joel Pourier was released Friday while authorities consider filing charges that he embezzled money from the Minneapolis charter school he directed.

Tom Sieben, Pourier's lawyer, said his client, who's led the embattled Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth charter school the past five years, maintains he's done nothing wrong.

Affidavits filed in Hennepin County on Thursday disclosed that a recent audit uncovered more than $160,000 missing.

Minneapolis school officials became concerned about the charter school's financial management in October when they learned that the school was behind on making pension fund payments.

Teachers also have reported that paychecks often bounced, and officials of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools said board members of the school hadn't taken advantage of financial management training offered by the group.

Minneapolis school board members are likely to vote Tuesday night on severing ties with the school.

After representatives from the Teacher Retirement Association and the Public Employees Retirement Association contacted Minneapolis officials in October, district leaders contacted Pourier and he set up a payment plan.

At the time "we felt like they were making a good-faith effort to pay the money," said Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

In March, however, state education officials summoned district officials and Pourier to discuss complaints from vendors who also hadn't been paid.

At that time, the school still hadn't finished its state-mandated audit for the 2006-07 academic year due on Dec. 31, said Mary Barrie, Minneapolis' alternative programs chief.

Audit 'culminating event'

The state finally received the audit last month and its findings showed that the school didn't fully cooperate, she said.

"I think the audit was the culminating event," Barrie said.

Others with extensive knowledge of the school also said Friday they saw trouble coming. Although the school joined the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools last year, none of the school's board members attended any financial programs provided by the association, said Eugene Piccolo, the group's executive director.

"A board needs to ask questions," Piccolo said. "Board members have to understand they are running a business, not playing school."

Board members could be not reached for comment Friday.

Heart of the Earth, which serves about 200 students, most of them American Indian, opened as an alternative public school and combined with Oh Day Aki in 1999 to become a charter school. Charter schools are public schools that can operate semi-autonomously.

Financial and academic oversight of charter schools has been a challenge. In 2004, the state Department of Education added midyear reviews and mandated special training for sponsors and board members of new charter schools.

Former state Rep. Matt Entenza, who was criticized for questioning the school's past financial problems years ago, said that "this clearly vindicates what we said back then that the school was a mess. It still is."

Principal Darlene Leiding spent most of Friday fielding calls from concerned parents and supporters of the school.

"Their questions have mostly been 'How could this happen?'" Leiding said.

She's still trying to figure that out, too. Leiding recalled meeting Pourier in 1997 when the two worked for another Minneapolis charter school run by the Volunteers of America.

Pourier was an unlicensed math teacher at the school but said he had a master's degree in business administration with an emphasis in finance, Leiding said.

She said she remembered Pourier when Heart of the Earth landed in state-defined operating debt in 2002 and helped recruit him as the school's finance director. The school emerged from debt in short order.

"We were in such trouble and the state was threatening to close us down," she said. "He was wonderful."

But calls to the registrar at Pourier's alleged alma mater, Chadron State College in Nebraska, by Leiding and the Star Tribune on Friday revealed the school has no records of his attendance.

Hannah Cushing, 25, of Minneapolis, taught English at the school for a year and half before taking a job at another charter school in May.

'There were suspicions'

She said on Friday it was common for some teachers' paychecks to bounce. Asked whether she was surprised to hear that Pourier may have stolen money from the school: "Yes and no," Cushing said. "There were suspicions that shady things were going on. He portrayed himself as independently wealthy so it didn't seem like he would need it."

Cushing said she never witnessed any blatant examples of financial mismanagement at the school but recalled an incident during a staff meeting when Pourier showed documents that inflated some students' attendance levels.

"We were the ones who see these kids every day, so we thought, 'Why would you bring this out in front of us?'" she said. "The conclusion we came to was that Joel believes his own lies."

Pourier couldn't be reached for comment this week, and investigators from the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office were still examining school records Friday. It wasn't clear when the case might be forwarded to the Hennepin County attorney for possible criminal charges.

"It would be nice to know what he's accused of and how strong the allegations are," said Sieben, Pourier's attorney. "I wish we knew more." • 612-673-1790 • 612-673-4395 • 612-673-1712

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