Minneapolis school board members voted Tuesday night to end the district's sponsorship of a charter school whose director is under investigation for allegedly embezzling money from the school's coffers.
Without a sponsor, the school will have to close.
The school board's decision to sever ties with Oh Day Aki/Heart of the Earth beginning Sept. 9 -- five days after classes are scheduled to resume -- comes after a recent state-mandated audit revealed more than $160,000 missing.
"What was perceived as a failure is not the school, not the parents, not the teachers, not the students and it is not me," Principal Darlene Leiding said through tears to board members. "The bottom line is, charter school law was not followed and oversight was not provided."
Joel Pourier, the school's executive director, is under investigation by the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office on allegations that he wrote checks to himself. He spent a night in jail last week. No charges had been filed as of Tuesday.
"Joel is not guilty," said Tom Sieben, Pourier's lawyer, before Tuesday's school board meeting, which his client did not attend. Sieben said, "He did not defraud, swindle or steal from that school."
Heart of the Earth was one of the first American Indian-operated schools in the nation. It serves about 200 students, most of whom are American Indian. It opened in the 1970s as an alternative public school and became a charter school in 1999. Several supporters of the school attended Tuesday's meeting and said they were disappointed that developments there were harming their children.
"Minneapolis played no part in this until now, when they're going to take it away," said Kileen Weise, whose grandchild attends the school. "It's not fair to the children."
Board member Peggy Flanagan on Tuesday said board members plan to work with the school's families to find new charter, public or private schools for every student before the fall term begins. "This is not an easy decision. It ticks me off that one person was able to affect 250 students."
Charter schools receive public funding but operate semi-autonomously. Four years ago, the state Department of Education added midyear reviews and mandated special training for sponsors and board members of new charter schools.
"I know students who have been at Heart of the Earth for years," said Mary Barrie, Minneapolis' charter and alternative school chief. "We would absolutely move to help those students find schools with help from the American Indian community."
Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis' deputy superintendent, said district officials first became concerned about the school's financial management in October when they learned the school was behind on pension fund payments on behalf of its staff.
In March, state education officials also summoned district leaders and Pourier to discuss complaints from vendors who hadn't been paid. At that point, Heart of the Earth officials still hadn't completed the audit for the 2006-07 academic year, due Dec. 31. State education officials received it July 1.
Minneapolis had previously considered dropping its sponsorship of the school several years ago after it landed in state-defined operating debt. But the district reversed course in 2003, citing major improvements in the Heart of the Earth's management. Pourier has been executive director at the school since 2003.
District officials sent a letter to John Plunkett, Heart of the Earth's board chair, on July 10 to notify him of their intent to recommend that the board terminate its sponsorship of the school within 60 days.
"In the years I've been on the board, Heart of the Earth has been through many challenges and managed to survive," said board member Sharon Henry-Blythe. "It's really sad it cannot survive this." Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395