Documents raise questions about Concrete Roses charter school’s oversight, finances and academics

New documents from the state charter school office detail a litany of problems in oversight, finances and academics at Concrete Roses STEM Academy in the days before it suddenly shut down.

The documents also raised concerns about personal payments the school’s founder and chairman, Cedric Stone, allowed himself on top of his salary.

Documents show that Stone used school money to make payments on Stone’s car and buy cellphones. They also show that he reimbursed himself nearly $15,000 for expenses without providing documentation.

Stone did not respond to requests for comment.

Concrete Roses opened its doors in August in a small brick building just off Monroe Road in southeast Charlotte. It was one of nine new charter schools in the Charlotte area. Just three weeks later, the school told parents that it would close by the end of the week.

Concrete Roses initially projected enrolling 560 students in its first year, serving grades K-9. The state gave it an initial allotment of public money based on having 300 students. But only 126 ultimately enrolled.

The N.C. Office of Charter Schools told the school Sept. 17 that the state was freezing its access to cash. The next morning, Concrete Roses officials told parents they would need to find another school for their children.

The closing marked the second major charter school failure in Charlotte. In April, StudentFirst closed amid financial and academic troubles.

The week Concrete Roses shuttered, the charter school office sent two inspectors to the campus. The documents released Monday include the inspectors’ report, which reveals new information on what went wrong at the school.

“During the closure visit it was noted that the school was struggling in the following areas: Governance, Finance, and Academics,” the report states.

Specific problems included:

• The school’s board of directors had five members, instead of the seven the school had promised. The board typically met by conference call rather than in person. Most responsibilities were delegated to one person, who is not specified in the report. “Lack of board oversight has resulted in substantial financial shortfalls and with the school failing to meet its approved mission statement,” the report reads.

• Teachers had not received an appropriate curriculum nearly four weeks into the school year, and the principal did not receive direction from the board of directors. The school also did not have Internet access.

• Student information had not been entered into the state’s computer system, known as PowerSchool.

• Administrators did not report expenses as required.

The problems at Concrete Roses revive debate over how North Carolina approves charter schools.

Charter schools are public, tuition-free and operated with taxpayer dollars. The state had long capped the number of charters that can operate at 100, but the legislature lifted that restriction in 2011. This fall was the second year that waves of new schools had opened.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has complained that the system allows parents to apply to multiple charter schools at the same time without withdrawing from the public school district. That ultimately can lead to inflated enrollment projections at the charter schools, and less state money given to CMS.

Gov. Pat McCrory, who has advocated for charter schools, said at a school choice rally in Charlotte this year that North Carolina would crack down on those not meeting expectations.

“If any are falling behind and not meeting the standards, we will take action, because I don’t want that to be a reflection of the choice movement,” he said.

Thousands in expenses

The state’s report also lists a series of irregularities involving Stone, the school’s chairman. The investigators do not specifically say they are improper, but categorize them as evidence of “lack of internal controls.”

The school was given access to $479,084 in public money, the state’s documents say. Concrete Roses had drawn down $285,170 of that.

Investigators said that Stone had sole control over financial decisions, and payments required his authorization alone.

The state’s report says that public money was used to make two car payments of about $650 on Stone’s 2014 Chevrolet Impala. School funds were also sent to the Department of Motor Vehicles to pay vehicle tax, and he received more than $3,000 for gas.

Stone also received several hundred dollars for cellphone purchases, but staff members at the school told investigators that nobody had received them, the report says.

Stone also failed to record expenses as he was required to. He kept financial records at his home, instead of at the school, the report states.

Bank statements from July and August show thousands of dollars of cash withdrawals without documentation. They also list checks written to Stone worth nearly $15,000. They are listed as to reimburse him for workshop fees, travel, office supplies and computer software, but no documentation was provided.

Stone was to receive a salary of $95,000, according to a budget presented to the state.

Joel Medley, director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools, was not able to be reached for comment Monday.