Report: Former W. Chester Sankofa director under investigation

Posted: July 12, 2014

The former director of a now-defunct West Chester charter school is being investigated for theft after an employee reported finding scores of questionable transfers in the school's bank accounts, court documents show.

LaMont McKim, who in 2005 founded Sankofa Academy Charter School with his wife, had sole control of finances at the grades 5-12 institution, a board member told borough police.

Police executed a warrant last week to seize the school's financial records. McKim does not have a publicly listed phone number and could not be reached for comment.

The small school he founded as a place for African American students to excel under a curriculum rooted in their history and culture was shuttered June 20. In April, the West Chester Area School District board voted to revoke Sankofa's charter at the end of the academic year, citing low test scores, unpaid bills, and an absentee director who was not explaining the shortcomings.

At the time, the chairman of Sankofa's board of directors, Fred Franklin, said the group had been left in the dark about the depth of the school's financial troubles.

Franklin now believes that the school is about $100,000 in debt and that McKim was taking money for personal use, according to a police affidavit. Court documents show that Franklin told a detective that teachers have reported retirement contributions missing from their accounts.

One of those teachers, who asked to not be named because she is seeking other employment, said Thursday that she first noticed in March that the money being deducted from her pay, about $100 each check, was not being put into a retirement fund - and that McKim had never even set up an account for her with the state. She said she e-mailed McKim and told him that was a crime.

"The next day," she said, "I had all my money up until February up there."

Nothing has been added since, she said. And she said she has not received a paycheck since the school closed in June.

The teacher has about two months left on her contract and estimated that money and the missing retirement contributions amount to at least $8,000.

Two other teachers also have not been paid since school ended, she said.

"I don't understand how nobody questioned him," she said of McKim. "We have a treasurer of the board. But she had nothing to do with the financials?"

A detective from West Chester police could not be reached Thursday afternoon. Michael Noone, first assistant at the Chester County District Attorney's Office, said he could not comment on whether his office was investigating McKim.

The state's 176 charters - half of them in Philadelphia - are under increased scrutiny.

Two Philadelphia charter executives were recently accused of stealing from their schools. One pleaded guilty, and the other is awaiting a retrial. The state auditor general cited concerns over accountability at charters as one reason he launched a sweeping review this year of the state Department of Education.

Records show Sankofa was never on solid financial footing. The school's enrollment, which its founders hoped would top 400 in the first five years, peaked at about 65. Tax returns show as much as $131,000 in debt in 2007.

Franklin told police that the school had not paid rent on its building, a converted warehouse on West Gay Street, since February and owes about $21,000. In May, a Chester County district judge ordered Sankofa to pay about $12,000 in rent to the landlord, Jim Gasho Jr., according to court documents. Gasho could not be reached for comment.

Franklin also does not have a publicly listed phone number and could not be reached Thursday.

Karin Gedge, a board member until she resigned in May, said the group seemed to be trying to "wind things down with as much dignity and responsibility" as it could.

Gedge said she decided to leave the board when she felt her questions - about the school's finances, enrollment, and the certification of its teachers - were not being answered and were increasing tensions rather than relieving them.

She and Franklin have said McKim has not been forthcoming with information.

"It's been really, really hard to figure out who needs to be paid. What funds are available? Who has been paid and how much?" Gedge said. "I think there are still way too many questions unanswered."

Before the charter was revoked, the board was planning to move the school, she said, and start a fund-raising campaign.

"When I go over the responsibilities of the board, I think we were carrying almost all of our responsibilities well, including supporting the head" of the school, she said. "I think where we fell down was having a really systematic evaluation of the head."

610-313-8205 @TriciaNadolny

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