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I remember the original promise of charter schools when the idea was first floated in the late 1980s. They would cost less than district schools because of no bureaucracy. They would be more accountable than district schools because they would lose their charter if they didn’t meet their academic goals. We now know that none of this is true. Charter leaders demand the same or more funding than their public counterparts. Although many charters close every year, many low-performing charters are not closed. And now we find that there is no financial accountability, that religious schools may become charters, that white-flight academies may become charters, and that some charter leaders pay themselves far more than district superintendents.
The latest example of charter refusal to be accountable is the Cornerstone charter chain in Detroit, where a major donor is battling in court to see a financial audit. The donor is especially interested in a jump in the charter leader’s salary from $500,000 to more than $800,000 in a two-year period, following the death of the original donor.
The story begins
A fissure has erupted between Clark Durant, the founder of Detroit’s Cornerstone charter schools, and the executors of the trust and estate of the schools’ largest funder: the late Bill Pulte Sr.
Last week Mark Pulte, the son of Pulte Sr. and a co-trustee of the William J. Pulte Trust, submitted a complaint to the office of Attorney General Dana Nessel. In it he called for an investigation into Durant as, well as the New Common School Foundation (NCSF), a non-profit Durant created to raise funds for the Cornerstone schools, a group of private, religious schools he opened in the 1990s, and subsequently transitioned into public-charter schools.
“I have grown increasingly concerned that NCSF, which is ostensibly a Michigan non-profit public charity whose mission is to educate disadvantaged students, is actually operating as a for-profit entity with the primary purpose of financially benefiting Mr. Durant,” Pulte, whose father has donated tens of millions of dollars to the foundation over the last two decades, wrote in the Nov. 30 complaint obtained by 7 Action News.
Pulte’s complaint comes in the midst of an already tense legal battle between the trust and the foundation.
In March, following a 7 Action News investigation into ethical questions surrounding rental contracts between Cornerstone’s public charter school boards (which Durant advises as CEO of the Cornerstone Education Group) and the NCSF (which acts as landlord, as well as a charity fundraising for the schools), the trust requested an audit from the foundation.
“The trustees remain confounded why your client refuses their reasonable request for an audit regarding the funds they have donated to the New Common School Foundation,” a trustee attorney wrote in a Mar. 12 email to the NCSF’s chairman Jeffery Neilson.