The state Department of Education has ordered the authorizer of a St. Paul charter school to investigate allegations of repeated misuse of funds as well as retaliatory employment practices at the North End institution.
The Community School of Excellence, 170 Rose Av. W., already had been forced previously to repay more than $200,000 in food and nutrition money, according to a July 15 letter from the department to the school's authorizer, Concordia University, St. Paul.
But allegations that the school has students "punch in for meals they do not consume" have surfaced again, according to the letter, which also asks the university to look into alleged improprieties in a recent school board election and the charter school's alleged ongoing failure to comply with mandates involving the reporting of suspected child abuse to authorities.
In one case, the letter states, the school's director allegedly interfered with an investigation by contacting an alleged victim's parents and asking the person "who reported the suspected abuse to sit down with the student's parents and explain the 'misunderstanding.' "
Lonn Maly, vice president for academic affairs at Concordia University, said: "I am surprised by all of these allegations. This has not been the track record of this school."
He said that Concordia asked the school board to hire an independent investigator, and that when the findings are complete, the university will review them to determine whether an additional probe is needed. The state has asked the university for a written response to the allegations by Aug. 9.
The Community School of Excellence was founded by Mo Chang, a longtime educator who served as a charter school liaison for the St. Paul Public Schools. In 2007, the school opened with 176 students, and since has seen its population grow to more than 830 students, according to its website.
The school advertises itself as a "K-8 Hmong Language & Culture and IB World School" and is housed in the former home of St. Bernard's Catholic school.
Chang, as the school's executive director, is the subject of several complaints raised in the three-page letter, but not by name. She could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The Community School of Excellence is one of eight charter schools for which Concordia University is an authorizer, Maly said.
Occasionally, he said, the department sends letters asking the university to investigate claims about the charter schools. He estimated having received about six such letters involving schools that the university oversees. He described the current allegations as serious and atypical in number.
The claim involving food and nutrition money was not the only one to have surfaced previously, he said. Concordia also was aware of concerns about the school's handling of "maltreatment complaints," and had thought that the issue was resolved when the school changed its policy to require employees to report suspected abuse to the director and to authorities, as required by law, instead of simply to Chang, as occurred previously.
Other allegations in the letter accuse the school's director of circumventing open meeting laws and threatening to fire a staff member if the employee reported student truancy to authorities. The state also questions whether the school misused federal funds by hosting "social activities for the community at large and for the director's family, including an annual lengthy trip to Thailand for a number of students."
Maly said he knew of eighth-graders taking trips to Thailand, but that the school has been audited annually and "there has never been a finding, to my knowledge, that the school has misused state or federal funds."
The state's letter does not raise concerns about academic performance. In Concordia University's view, the Community School of Excellence does a "wonderful job of teaching Hmong culture and language," Maly said. But the university contends the school is not performing well enough in the areas of math, science and other subjects, prompting it to withhold approval of any expansion beyond grades K-8.
"We are leaning hard on the board to improve academic achievement of students," Maly said. "Until that happens, we won't authorize any grade expansion."