Saturday, July 4, 2015

Lawsuit is another blow to Camden's LEAP Academy

In addition to LEAP Academy University Charter School's financial woes, the school has been hit with a lawsuit alleging misappropriation of school and scholarship money.

Lawsuit is another blow to Camden's LEAP Academy

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Camden County School Superintendent Peg Nicolosi with LEAP Academy University Charter pre-schoolers in 2009. Tax-exempt status was revoked. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer
Camden County School Superintendent Peg Nicolosi with LEAP Academy University Charter pre-schoolers in 2009. Tax-exempt status was revoked. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

In addition to LEAP Academy University Charter School’s financial woes, the school has been hit was a lawsuit alleging misappropriation of school and scholarship money.

The lawsuit filed in January by LEAP employee Mark Paoli, who served as the school facilities manager for 12 years before being demoted in May, alleges LEAP founder and board chair Gloria Bonilla-Santiago “routinely demanded that he perform work on her home while on LEAP Academy time and using LEAP Academy, tools, equipment and supplies.”

Some examples of the work Bonilla-Santiago allegedly ordered Paoli to do during school hours included fixing the gutter, leaks and the air-conditioning system in her house.

Bonilla-Santiago denied all allegations in a statement.

"We believe the facts of this lawsuit will be found to be baseless when the allegations come under the scrutiny of the formal judicial process," according to her statement.

She seemed especially hurt about one detail in the allegations. Paoli claims that on June 28, 2006 Bonilla-Santiago paid for labor and supplies with a check drawn from the Alfred Santiago Scholarship Endowment.

“I simply cannot let stand the employee's shameful allegation that I paid for weekend work from the scholarship fund in the name of my deceased husband -- the same fund that benefits LEAP families and students,” she wrote in a letter to LEAP board and stakeholder. “No such thing ever happened.”

Founded in 1997, LEAP is one of Camden's more prominent charter schools, with a large downtown campus. In August, LEAP will open a new 60-student high school that will focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, and a new K-3 school. LEAP Lower School (K-6) and LEAP Upper School (7-12) are one block apart on Cooper Street.

But the school has recently faced scrutiny from the state for mismanagement of federal money. And just last month, it was publicly reported that LEAP  (as well as Camden Pride Charter School) had lost its tax-exempt status from the IRS in 2010 for failure to file tax forms for three consecutive years.

Good thing the school, in conjunction with Rutgers-Camden Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership, only does fund-raising for its two scholarships, at least according to school spokeman Adam Dvorin.

Had any donations come in for the school, which is common for other area charters, the donor would have had to pay taxes on it and the gift would have been listed as taxable income for the school, an IRS spokesman said.

In my article Friday, I gave the example of TEAM Schools in Newark using fundraising for its future facilities. But even some small charter schools tend to keep an active 501(c)(3) status for any donation that might come in and to be able to easily apply for federal grants, many of which require that tax-exempt IRS certification.

Though Distinctions in Urban Education Season Charter School in Camden doesn’t receive many private donations, said founder and CEO Doris Carpenter, the few that do donate money can receive tax deductions. A few years ago, a private donor gave musical instruments for the school’s music program.

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About this blog

Allison Steele writes about Camden’s schools, government and businesses. Most importantly, she writes about the city’s residents. She is a former crime reporter who covered the Camden and Philadelphia police departments for the Inquirer. A Philly native, she has been with the Inquirer since 2008.

Send comments, tips and story ideas to asteele@philly.com, call 856-779-3876, or reach out on Twitter @AESteele.

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