A story about Aspira Charter Schools should give notice to nonprofit boards that what may appear to be matters that are all owned by staff, they are instead, matters that the board must address.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer story highlights, Aspira Charter School fired an employee for what was stated as, effectively, doing a bad job. This is definitely the purview of the staff - to fire someone for doing a bad job. The fired employee however claims that she was fired as a whistleblower - someone who publicly identified illegal management practices. Whistleblowers are protected under federal law and while they can certainly be fired (pretty much as a cover-up by those being accused of wrongoing), they have rights that if proven correct, will at least provide some compensation and possibly a return to the job - should a person want to be working for that nonprofit after this experience. Staff must advise their board (the owners) of a whistleblower case and the boards must discuss what action is necessary.
But, wait, there's more! Aspira paid out money to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former administrator. Again, not just a staff matter - a board matter. And yes, the organization is also currently be investigated around its finances and management. For sure, a board matter.
Ask me, Aspira's board has a lot to discuss wearing its fiduciary duty of care hat. Members must fully understand all these trials and tribulations and have clear, fully-informed discussions that are actionable - at minimum, approving the management's action; at maximum, replacing management.
Fired employee files whistle-blower suit against Aspira, says federal probe underway
A former accounts payable coordinator at Aspira has filed a federal whistle-blower suit that claims she was wrongfully fired by the charter school operator after refusing to manipulate bookkeeping entries.
The suit, which was posted on the federal court website Wednesday, was first reported by Fox 29.
The statement added: “As for allegations of financial improprieties, as we have said before, Aspira schools are audited annually by an independent accounting firm, and all of these audits – without exception – have resulted in ‘clean’ audit opinions.”
The organization said the allegations in Way’s suit were “simply the latest in a continuing effort” by Aspira’s opponents to discredit it and “its reputation as a leader in the education of children throughout Philadelphia’s Latino community.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said she could not confirm or deny whether the federal government was investigating Aspira.
Aspira, a nonprofit based in Hunting Park, focuses on Latino youth and education. It operates four charter schools in Philadelphia: Olney High and John B. Stetson in Kensington, Eugenio Maria De Hostos in Olney, and Antonia Pantoja in North Philadelphia. The organization also operates the statewide Aspira Bilingual Cyber, based in Olney.
In her suit, Way said she was hired by Aspira in May 2011 and wrongfully terminated on Aug. 26, 2016, accused of mishandling two accounts. The complaint called that accusation “pretense and subterfuge” and says Way was fired for refusing “to engage in financial fraud [and] for providing information to law enforcement.”
Way said that she was contacted by federal investigators in December 2015 and that Aspira’s management was aware she met with the FBI.
According to the suit, Aspira was trying to take over two California schools in spring 2016 but needed bank loans to complete the deal. Officials asked Way to manipulate bookkeeping entries to make it appear Aspira’s finances were better than they were. When Way refused, she faced “increasing criticism and pressure,” the suit said.
Benjamin Friedman, Way’s attorney, described her as “a lovely woman who took her job very seriously.” He said Aspira not only fired Way but “fabricated a nasty scenario, accusing her of mismanaging accounts. She is a very precise and accurate woman, and the idea that she would suddenly screw up seemed very mean-spirited.”
Way’s suit and the revelation of a federal investigation are the latest problems to face Aspira. Among other things, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced last week that his office would begin an audit of the five charter schools operated by Aspira because of news reports that the organization had paid a former administrator $350,000 to settle a sexual-harassment complaint and lawsuit she had filed against Aspira president and CEO Alfredo Calderon.
In addition, concerns about finances and management -- and Aspira's requests for time to resolve them -- have prompted the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to repeatedly delay voting on new operating agreements for Olney and Stetson.
Both are once-troubled district schools that the SRC turned over to Aspira in 2010 and 2011 to convert to charter schools and overhaul their academics. The district’s charter office has said the two schools are entangled in a web of financial transactions, including payments and loans to Aspira, to each other, and to Aspira-related businesses.