Au­di­tor chides char­ter school ad­min­is­tra­tors

Keller says cou­ple spent lav­ishly on con­fer­ence travel

Albuquerque Journal - - METRO & NM - BY KIM BURGESS JOUR­NAL STAFF WRITER

Last spring, state Au­di­tor Tim Keller crit­i­cized the GREAT Academy for pay­ing its two top ad­min­is­tra­tors a com­bined $300,000 a year — the high­est char­ter school salaries in the state.

Now Keller says Jasper and Keisha Matthews, the school’s hus­band-and-wife ad­min­is­tra­tive team, are tak­ing lav­ish work trips to lux­ury re­sorts us­ing money from the GREAT Academy’s non­profit foun­da­tion.

Dur­ing the 2016 fis­cal year, the GREAT Academy Foun­da­tion spent roughly $16,000 on out-of-state travel and con­fer­ence fees, in­clud­ing stays at the Walt Dis­ney World Swan and Dol­phin Re­sort in Or­lando, Fla., and the Omni Shore­ham Ho­tel in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Keller told the Jour­nal he has never seen sim­i­lar ex­penses at any other char­ter school.

“Is this re­ally what their foun­da­tion should be fo­cus­ing their money on?” Keller said. “We think they (the Matthewses) can af­ford th­ese trips on their own.”

The GREAT Academy — a school with roughly 200 stu­dents in sixth through 12th grades at 6001 San Ma­teo NE — re­ported the trips to the state and has not vi­o­lated any laws, but Keller said he thinks tax­pay­ers de­serve an ex­pla­na­tion.

Jasper Matthews, GREAT Academy ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and founder, told the Jour­nal he dis­agrees with the state au­di­tor’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of his school’s ex­penses.

The $16,000 bill cov­ered trips to three ed­u­ca­tional con­fer­ences, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments Matthews sub­mit­ted to the Jour­nal. The Matthewses trav­eled with a num­ber of board mem­bers and stayed at the con­fer­ence’s host ho­tels at a dis­count rate, the doc­u­ments state.

In to­tal, the travel ex­pen­di­tures amount to less than 6 per­cent of the GREAT Academy Foun­da­tion’s an­nual bud­get. “There are lim­its to how much you can spend on in-state and out-of­s­tate travel — we fol­low all of those guide­lines,” Jasper Matthews said. “We have not had any au­dit find­ings or any vi­o­la­tions re­gard­ing our travel in this ’15-’16 au­dit year.”

In Septem­ber, the Of­fice of the State Au­di­tor sent a let­ter to the pres­i­dents of the GREAT Academy’s foun­da­tion and board of di­rec­tors crit­i­ciz­ing the high travel costs.

“While not di­rectly pub­lic dol­lars, Foun­da­tion re­sources are in­tended to be used for the pur­pose of ad­vanc­ing the needs of the School and should be used ju­di­ciously,” the let­ter says.

Keller said he has not re­ceived a re­sponse.

Jasper Matthews told the Jour­nal he thinks Keller, an Al­bu­querque may­oral can­di­date, cir­cu­lated the let­ter to me­dia to get “free press” ahead of the Novem­ber runoff elec­tion.

Keller said he is fo­cused on re­spon­si­ble char­ter school spend­ing.

The Matthewses’ com­bined $300,000 salary is al­ready a red flag, Keller said, par­tic­u­larly be­cause the school’s in­struc­tors are among the low­est-paid in New Mex­ico, earn­ing an av­er­age of $38,000 a year.

Statewide, the av­er­age char­ter school ad­min­is­tra­tor re­ceives $87,000 a year.

“In that con­text, to see th­ese ad­di­tional trips ex­pensed to the foun­da­tion, it’s very con­cern­ing,” Keller said.

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