The Highville Mustard Seed Story
Articles from Nov. 10, 2005, to June 29, 2007
June 29, 2007
Highville board does a no-show; parents organize to save the school
By Sharon Bass
Lyndon Pitter’s quartet of followers -- aka what’s left of the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School board -- decided not to show up for a scheduled meeting last night. A meeting that was essential to the school’s survival -- and another sign board members are determined to see Highville crumble.
The roughly two dozen parents who came for the meeting stood in front of a locked school. Instead of retreating, they held their own meeting outside. They signed a petition and decided to march to Hartford July 2 to beg for the survival of an educational facility that has meant so much to them and their children. (Click here to read students’ letters to state officials.)
“How can four people hijack a school of 300 kids?” said parent Cecilia Thomson.
July 2 is also the latest deadline for the board to give the state its corrective action plan, required since Highville is on probation (for the second time). But the board seems to be ignoring it and refused to discuss the plan at Tuesday’s meeting. Without the CAP in state hands, the Leeder Hill school could lose its charter and thus cease to exist.
However, other deadlines for the plan were not met. And each time the state issued an extension instead of revoking the charter.
Tom Murphy of the Department of Education said the board has asked for yet another extension. “We’ve tried and tried to give them second and third and fourth and fifth chances but it doesn’t appear to be working out. But Monday is the day,” he said.
And if like every other time, the Monday deadline isn’t met?
“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen,” said Murphy. But “if they don’t transfer the authority [of the school to the newly selected board] by Monday, that will trigger action.” Such action could be charter revocation and withholding the $700,000 the school is due to get July 15, he said.
The current board of Pitter’s handpicked loyalists was supposed to be replaced by a new one by May 31. That didn’t happen. (New board members’ names are being kept quiet for now.)
Parents congregated in the humid evening air yesterday said they are now more frustrated with the state for not acting quickly or aggressively enough. They signed petitions to be sent to the secretary of the state, attorney general, Highville board attorney Stephen Sedor, the Highville board and the superintendents of Hamden and New Haven schools. As of last night, there were 27 signatures.
The petition calls for the “immediate resignation” of the four: Fatima Ennis-Grant, Rev. David Lee, Richard Riley and Rohan Stewart. “They have systematically worked toward the demise of the school. Their actions are reprehensible, unreasonable and negligent … We are requesting the state to act as a receiver on behalf of Highville Mustard Seed Charter School,” read the petition.
“I’m really disgusted because what’s happening is this is good versus evil,” said parent Rona Scott. “What’s been done is done out of greed.”
“He [Pitter] had everyone duped,” said parent Allen London, echoing many. “He knew well in advance what his intentions were. Greed. To make money.”
“Lyndon is continuing to run the school,” said Scott. “I hope the state indicts the current board. My understanding is [Pitter’s] intention is to take this same curriculum to Texas.”
“He should be made to suffer for what he did to these kids,” said London. “Everyone is awakened now. We’re no longer being fooled by him. He lied from day one to everyone. Now he’s running like a dog with his tail between his legs. He is no Marcus Garvey.”
“I’m nauseous, truly nauseous,” said Scott. “My daughter said to me the other day, ‘Is it really true about Mr. Pitter that he stole all that money? I really liked him.’”
The Hartford Plan
Parent Robin Godwin took the lead in cementing the plan for next Monday. Parents, teachers and students will meet at Highville at 7 a.m. and carpool to Hartford. They planned to see Attorney General Richard Blumenthal at 8:30 a.m. and then appeal to the Department of Ed to take receivership of the school.
“Time is running out on us,” said Godwin of the July 2 corrective action plan deadline. “We have to act as quickly as possible.”
But Blumenthal told the HDN later last night that he has a speaking engagement outside of Hartford at 8 a.m. next Monday. He said he could meet with the group later on that day.
Besides not being available early Monday morning, Blumenthal said the Highville group should first talk with the state ed department “because their conclusion about the compliance of the corrective action plan would be significant. We will take appropriate and necessary action after the Department of Education makes a judgment as to whether the school is complying with the corrective action plan.”
Blumenthal would not comment on the action “we may take because it will depend on the factual issues and possible violations of law.”
The attorney general also wouldn’t comment on the parents’ wish for the state to take receivership of the charter school, except to say it is possible.
“We believe there is authority under appropriate circumstances for the state to assume receivership responsibilities,” he said. “We have said from the very beginning that the school has made enormous accomplishments and provided tremendous educational contributions and our goal is to preserve and enhance the school -- not harm it.”
Parents said board member Lee, who is widely rumored to be living with Pitter, cancelled Thursday's meeting because he said “he needed a break.”
“The infamous four requested an insurance and bank rep to be at tonight’s meeting,” said parent Thomson. “They believe the insurance covers their actions,” such as writing checks to Pitter after he was to be entirely severed from the school.
Arlene Hanlan said the news about Pitter has hit his native Jamaica. Hanlan and a number of other parents are also from Jamaica.
“People in Jamaica are talking about Pitter right now,” she said. “What kind of person is this?” Hanlan said her friends in Jamaica have e-mailed here saying “they can’t believe it.”
“It’s not no more about Lyndon,” she said. “It’s the school and the family we’ve formed. We need all the support we can get. We want our school back.”
While driving home after the meeting, this reporter was stopped by Highville parent Toni Foreman. “Here’s my son’s report card,” she said from her car window. And handed over a copy.
Her pre-K son, Logan, got all A’s and A+’s this school year. His subjects were language arts, math, science, global studies, country studies I and II, visual arts, music/drama, physical ed and health and service learning.
His teacher wrote: “Logan is a hard worker and a great role model for all. Logan is doing a beautiful job in school! He always puts forth his best efforts and is a well-rounded student. He should be very proud. Good luck in kindergarten!”
Toni Foreman hopes.
June 27, 2007
Hi my name is maya xxxx. I attend Highville mustard seed charter school. The most wonderful school I have ever been to so far. I have only been attending Highville for one and a half years. I would hate for the school to close down do to difficulties. This school has help me in lots of subjects. For example math, reading, writing, and so much more. The teachers are very funny at times. When they become bitter and mean, I now they are doing it for our own good. So if Highville were to close down, there would be no us good. Thank You for Highville.
June 27, 2007
My name is Heaven Xxxx and I attend Highville Mustard Seed Charter School. I have been attending this school for about 6 to 7 years. I have been there since 1st grade – 6th grade for now. I would love to graduate from this school. I love this school a lot and It would be a shame to see it close down. The learning is excellent and we have many extra curriculum activities that are interesting and fun. Highville is one of my homes and I never want to leave. We learn but have fun at some things during classes. Also, it would be bad for children when they have to go to a new school and have new teachers, new classmates and new friends. The teachers are fantastic. They can be strict at times but that’s only because they care. They would hate for us not to make it to the next grade. This school is very stupendous and tears would be dropping down my face if I was to hear that the school closed down. It is not only a home to me, it is also a home to my fellow classmates, family, and friends. Thank you!
June 27, 2007
My name is Tamaara Xxxx and I have attended Highville for 9 years. I am now 12 and have alot of memories there. Highville has made learning very fun for me. I went in when I was 3 and was reading at 4, most kids don’t learn that untill they are in the 1st grade age 6. We have always had a great learning standered. I know for a fact our work is advanced. One day while I was over my cousin’s house, I took a look at her homework and I could solve it. My cousin is or was in 8th grade then. Also, what other school has 3 year olds saying number 1-10 in Spanish. Most children couldn’t do that untill High School. I would be stricten with most sorrow if I would to see the school closed down. A beloveded teacher Ms. Leonie passed away with her job still at Highville and if she were to hear of this she’d say that Highville would not fall but rise because we are a family here, and Highville is our home. Highville stays because we the students have something to say and it’s Highville will not go not without a fight.
June 27, 2007
At the 11th hour, Highville board members continue to jeopardize the charter school’s future by refusing to let go
Story and photos by Sharon Bass
It may be more uncertain than ever if the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School will go on. It also may be more certain than ever that those still holding the reins are trying to ensure the school goes down with its fallen founder.
The last remnants of the Highville school board -- steadfast loyalists to former director/founder Lyndon Pitter -- insist they want to keep the troubled school in business, however their actions, as exhibited again last night, belie those words. Teachers and parents angrily accused them of trying to take down the school because Pitter has been state ordered to stay away from the Leeder Hill school -- and its money.
The current board is supposed to be replaced by a newly chosen one on July 2, per state orders. But at the last minute the board voted to require its successors to have criminal background checks before being seated. That could take weeks and put the school’s future in even severer jeopardy.
However after the meeting, Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education, told the HDN the board can’t insist on those background checks. “They don’t have the authority to do that. They’ve gone beyond their authority,” he said.
Murphy said there is no state statute that would “empower the board to require another board to have criminal background checks.” He said no school districts in Connecticut perform such checks on board members.
But the law doesn’t seem to factor much into the manipulations of the four remaining active board members: Rev. David Lee, parent Fatima Ennis-Grant, Richard Riley and Rohan Stewart. At a circus of a meeting Tuesday evening, they ignored lawyers’ advice. Ennis-Grant, in particular, repeatedly told them they couldn’t talk.
“We don’t want your legal advice,” she told Bridgeport attorney Stephen Sedor nearly every time he tried to speak.
“She is so rude,” parents yelled out, and loudly applauded when Ennis-Grant left the room.
The board voted chair John Gesmonde, a Hamden lawyer, off the board, and voted Lee as chair. They voted teacher rep Wesley Daunis off the board. They claimed the furnishings and computers belong to the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation, run by Pitter, and made thinly veiled threats to leave the school bare. They voted to take away check-writing authority from interim chancellor Kim Childress and gave it to Ennis-Grant and board treasurer Stewart. They said they own the student and staff records.
“We will retain all those records until we deem it necessary” to turn them over, said Lee.
“All parents have the right to their children’s records,” Bridgeport lawyer Donald Houston informed the reverend.
“It’s like the French Revolution,” said a teacher, who asked not to be identified.
Gesmonde said the new seven-member board is ready to take over July 2. And Lee et al have contacted New Haven criminal defense attorney Hugh Keefe. Keefe had said he was to meet with them Tuesday, but it’s unclear if that meeting took place. It’s also unclear how the current board would pay Keefe, who isn't cheap. Lee would not comment. Ennis-Grant said twice last night, “We have no money.”
And Pitter’s handpicked board members still have not sent a completed corrective action plan to the state -- after being granted extension after extension -- which they have been told would lead to the charter being pulled, effectively killing the school of 300 children.
“We’re not doing any of this to delay or shut down the school,” Lee said. “We’re not doing anything malicious. This is about making sure we have a clean separation.”
Parents then shot a battery of questions to Lee, who until recently was with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Haven. He said he’s started his own church.
“Are you living with Mr. Pitter?” several asked.
Lee had no comment.
“Were you caught embezzling from the [AME] church?”
Lee had no comment.
He and the other board members (except Gesmonde, who disagreed with nearly all the actions the board took) claimed criminal background checks are necessary because the school’s liability insurance runs through mid-July, and the reverend and other Pitter loyalists said they want to make sure the new board is clean. Asked when they found out about the insurance issue and why they're bringing it up now at the 11th hour, no one would answer.
Meanwhile, the state may press criminal charges against Pitter and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, on the heels of a lengthy state investigation that found incidents of embezzlement and a host of other financial improprieties.
“Their behavior is setting in motion actions that will likely close the school,” Murphy said of the remaining board members. If the corrective action plan is not submitted by next Monday, he said, “there may be another action that would involve the Attorney General’s Office.” He could not reveal the nature of the action.
Murphy said the state will not send the school another cent until the new board takes over and Highville is legally separated from Pitter’s development corporation. The state gave the school $600,000 in April -- the same month Ennis-Grant wrote two checks to Pitter. He’s not supposed to receive a state dime, which had been made crystal clear to Ennis-Grant and the others, said Murphy..
The foursome tried many tricks last night. They voted to go into executive session on items that do not fall within the Freedom of Information Act’s definition of needing such a session, as the lawyers told them. But they ignored that and most of the other advice they were given. Or that was attempted to be given.
Cutting off Sedor again, Ennis-Grant said she wanted the names of the new board members in order to conduct the criminal checks.
“No one should be named chair [of the new board] until this board agrees,” said Lee.
But Michael Brown, the board’s corporate attorney, said, “Anyone can form a corporation tomorrow and select a board of directors.”
The reverend replied that he will withhold information from the new board. Brown said he can’t do that. Lee begged to disagree.
“This is terrible,” said parent Arlene Hanlan of Hamden. “I think that all of these people are going under Mr. Pitter’s umbrella.”
Hanlan, who worked at the school for five years, has two children at Highville and like the other parents, she said she doesn’t know what to do. Some have enrolled their kids in other schools, but others are hoping Highville will see the ’07-’08 school year. Also, they said they don’t want to give into Lee, Ennis-Grant and the others, whom they claim are doing Pitter’s final work by trying to get the school shuttered.
“I heard Lee took church money and mortgage money,” said Hanlan. “He lives with Mr. Pitter.” Her words were echoed by a dozen parents and teachers last night.
“They’re sabotaging the [next] school year,” said Hamden parent Yvonne Sourragh.
“It seems like they’re trying to shut the school,” said another Hamden parent Toni Foreman. “You say you’re looking out for the kids. If you were, you wouldn’t be taking furniture out of here and firing teachers. You guys sitting on this board are doing crazy stuff. I’m disgusted.”
“This whole process has ripped everyone apart,” said departing chair Gesmonde. “It’s taken its toll.”
“They’re running out of time and they’re running out of money,” said Murphy of the department of education. “There’s no budget, there’s no funds, there’s no school. This is the end game. We gave them more than second chances. Our interest was in trying to continue a school that seemed to have some value for students.”
“C’mon,” Hanlan beckoned into the night air after the nearly three-hour meeting. “Give it up for the kids. It’s over.”
June 25, 2007
By Sharon Bass
By May 31, the state demanded that the current Highville Mustard Seed board be forever separated from the Hamden charter school and a new board created because of a long string of stinging allegations against the former school director and his ex-wife, which the board seemingly ignored. (Click here and here and here for related stories.)
But the same board is still running the show and held three meetings last week, of which at least one was illegal because it wasn’t publicly posted. Enter powerhouse New Haven lawyer Hugh Keefe.
“They called me to ask,” said Keefe, well know for his high-profile criminal cases. He wouldn’t say who on the board called him. “All I know is I’m having a preliminary meeting.”
Keefe said he’s scheduled to meet with the board on Tuesday in executive session, though it’s unclear if a meeting has been legally scheduled to allow an executive session. Messages left with several board members were not returned.
Councilman Curt Leng, whose wife, Stephanie Cervoni Leng, teaches at Highville, attended last Friday’s meeting. Because it was deemed illegal, the state Department of Education plans to file a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission.
Leng said board member Rev. David Lee made the motion to hire Keefe, which was approved unanimously at the June 22 meeting by the five of the 10 members who showed: Fatima Ennis-Grant, Richard Riley, Eugenie Pitter, Rohan Stewart and Lee, who was voted in as co-chair to serve with Hamden attorney John Gesmonde.
That was news to Gesmonde, who boycotted the meeting.
“I didn’t know there was going to be a meeting until Friday at 10 a.m.,” he said, calling it illegal. “I had no input on the agenda. I didn’t know that Keefe was hired. I know they’re getting advice from someone but I didn’t know it was Keefe. I know it’s not from [Bridgeport attorney Stephen] Sedor [the board’s current attorney].”
Gesmonde said he doesn’t “endorse” the direction the board is taking.
The five members who quietly arranged last Friday’s meeting have vigorously defended disgraced former director Lyndon Pitter, even suggesting he should be paid for a “damaged reputation” because of myriad state findings that he embezzled money from the school, gave out no-bid contracts to friends and committed other infractions. Consequently, Pitter and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, are not allowed to have anything to do with Highville or receive any money from the school, although Ennis-Grant signed two checks to Lyndon in April. The state is investigating.
According to an inside source, a new board was selected last week but the names were not being released. Hernandez said he only attended one committee meeting and missed one on June 18. He said he didn’t know what transpired then or if new board members were chosen.
The source also said "certain members" of the board made a list of school equipment such as teachers’ desks, the phone system and computers, which they allege were purchased with non-state money. The board insisted those items belong to Pitter’s development corporation, not to the school. When teachers learned their desks might be taken away, some tried to retrieve their belongings on June 20, but were locked out of the Leeder Hill Drive school. Upon orders from the board, their keys were taken and only the custodian was allowed to have a key, the source said.
Also, according to folks who attended the meeting, the five members voted to require new board members to have background checks before they’re seated -- something virtually no school does. They also agreed to have the board attorney [unclear if that would be Keefe or Sedor] prepare COBRA letters to school employees because their health insurance is expected to expire on June 31. The board tacked on a 10 percent administrative fee.
Despite the ongoing problems and the resistance of some board members to step down and away as ordered by the state, Leng said he’s hopeful for a good outcome. He said he’s been a supporter of Highville for the school’s nine years of existence, and recently worked as a consultant there until this April.
“I’m concerned but very hopeful that the board will do the right thing over the next week or two and allow the school to continue its academic success and allow the separation to happen appropriately as the state advised,” said Leng.
It is still unclear whether Hamden's only charter school will have an '07-'08 school year. The parents of the 300 students are holding their collective breath.
June 2, 2007
Documents reveal the school board’s agenda may be to see the charter school's demise
By Sharon Bass
It sounds so simple.
Lyndon Pitter and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, are not allowed to have any dealings with the school they founded. They are not to get a penny from it. The state found they had embezzled money, gave no-bid jobs to friends and committed a whole bunch of other improprieties, if not crimes, and demanded the Pitters be totally severed from the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School on Leeder Hill Drive.
But that school board -- carefully handpicked by Lyndon -- has refused to comply knowing the charter will be revoked and the school shuttered if it doesn’t. While the school needs $150,000 to finish out this school year and is having a tough time getting the money because of its fragile state, documents requested by the Hamden Daily News from the state Department of Education show that board members signed checks made out to Lyndon Pitter as recently as April 23, with no stated reason for the payments. Two checks given to Pitter on April 23 totaled over $100,000, according to Tom Murphy, department spokesman.
Meanwhile, teachers were not paid for this past week. The Highville cupboard is bare.
According to a May 30, 2007, report from public accountants Bailey, Moore, Glazer, Schaefer & Proto which just audited the school, Board members “were always talking about how much they owed Mr. Pitter on his claim and for the damage done to his reputation.” E-mails obtained from the ed department strongly suggest that the majority of the Board wants the school closed.
“We are concerned about the future of the school. We’ve done our utmost to be flexible to support the school in its efforts to recover,” said Murphy. “However, we’ve received some copies of e-mails from board members that make us question the ability of the board to function in the future.”
The charter school is on probation for the second time and the state has been perhaps too patiently awaiting an acceptable corrective action plan to show how Highville practices will be cleaned up with the promise that the Pitters will have no involvement and there will be a new board. That plan was approved unanimously by the board May 16 and got to the Department of Education right on its May 31 deadline.
Murphy said the plan does address the main problems and includes interviews with board members who signed the April 23 checks. “However there are a few areas that need to be revised,” he said. Murphy said he will send a letter to the board chair, Hamden attorney John Gesmonde, on Monday to advise him.
Gesmonde called an emergency board meeting at 7 p.m. on May 30 -- one day before the state deadline for the action plan -- to vote on new policies and to select an interview committee to choose a new board, to add to the corrective plan that was voted on May 16. The meeting took place over the phone. Board member Richard Riley, a fiery defender of Pitter’s, was in Jamaica -- Pitter’s homeland.
Board members Riley, Fatima Ennis-Grant [parent rep], Eugenie Pitter [reportedly no relation to Lyndon Pitter], Fred Anderson, Rohan Stewart and Wesley Daunis [teacher rep] and Gesmonde and board attorney Stephen Sedor were present. (The board subsequently fired Sedor.)
Gesmonde opened the meeting saying the revised plan must be approved “so the state will let us keep our charter for next year. By the state approving this, we can go to our lender and ask for more money to finish the current school year. The more problematic issue is that we have to provide the state with a process by which we will elect a screening committee and the new board.”
But some members wanted to rescind their May 16 vote.
According to the meeting minutes, “Richard Riley states that he never agreed with the first Corrective Action Plan and inquires where it is in writing that the state says we cannot have a current board member on the new board. John Gesmonde says the state made it clear that no board member can sit on the new board … Richard Riley then states that the sub-committee consisting of Rohan Stewart, Richard Riley, and Fatima Ennis-Grant is responsible for making the recommendations for the new board. Mr. Sedor then states that when he spoke to Attorney Flannigan [sic], the state board of education’s attorney, she said that no individuals who were involved with the writing and signing of checks to the Pitters can be on the committee to elect the new board.
“Richard Riley states again that we do not have to do what the state tells us, Rohan Stewart agrees … John Gesmonde states that if we continue on this path and do not approve this plan, the state will revoke our charter and the school will be closed … Fatima Ennis-Grant then states that she wants to be the parent on the board selection committee. John Gesmonde then states that if Fatima Ennis-Grant insists on being on this committee, the state may inevitably revoke our charter.”
Gesmonde then made a motion to approve the proposal for the interview committee but Ennis-Grant said she would only do so if Daunis is removed from it. “She states the committee should be representative of the community,” the minutes read. Daunis is white; the school is 90 percent black. Pitter had suspended Daunis with pay in April, shortly after Daunis complained to the acting chancellor about Nadine Pitter’s nursing performance. She and Lyndon were no longer allowed to work at the school after the state’s findings of an 18-month investigation were released in March, but she was still employed as the school nurse anyway. And Lyndon continued to receive checks even though the state found he owed the school about $80,000, money he took for personal use.
The meeting minutes continue: “Please do not suggest any board member who has been involved in signing checks to the Pitters, or Rev. [David] Lee [another member who vehemently defends Lyndon Pitter at meetings], because that will result in an instant rejection of the process for selection of the new school board members and consequently, the corrective action plan of which it is a part …
“Finally, because of the delays we have experienced in getting this simple corrective action play filed with SDE [state department of ed], it has not been possible to get funding from any source until we get the ‘green light’ that we can finish the year and the charter will not be revoked. Obviously, no one is going to lend us money to finish the year if there is not to be any reimbursement on July 15, 2007 because there is no school.”
The board unanimously approved the action plan.
But the next day, some tried to rescind their votes via e-mail. Murphy said that is not acceptable. The board would have to meet and get a majority vote to turn down the plan, he said.
The May 31 e-mail frenzy began at 9:47 a.m. by Riley to the board and lawyers saying the phone meeting was illegal and the plan should not be sent to the state.
He wrote: “ … there was a number of illegal maneuvers and tactics used in the presents [sic] of Highville’s paid attorney [Sedor] aimed specifically at circumventing the will of the majority of board members. To that effect, I am calling for the majority of Board member [sic] to ensure that no documents is [sic] submitted to the SDE with their legal vote, there is be [sic] an immediate investigation in the Chairs [sic] actions that a [sic] immediate review of the statutes of the Board attorney.”
At 1:03 p.m., Gesmonde responded.
“I believe we did the right thing and I know we did the only thing to save the school; hopefully our actions will not be too late,” he wrote. “Lastly, I spoke with New Alliance Bank officers today in the hope of obtaining permission not only to access the remainder of our credit line, but to extend it in the amount of about $30K just to make payroll for next week … The bank has indicated that it will have an answer on Monday. It is also critical that we obtain financing for the balance of the funding needed to complete the school year (another $120K). I am still hoping that New Haven and/or Hamden school districts will help us …”
At 1:59 p.m., Ennis-Grant e-mailed: “I agree with Richard’s [Riley] position. Again, I, as well as Ms. Jenny Pitter & Mr. Fred Anderson felt trapped into voting on yesterday’s matter that occurred by phone. It seemed illegal while it was happening.” She complained that the board didn’t get to look at Bailey, Moore, Glazer, Schaefer & Proto's report, which includes interviews of school personnel and board members about the checks written to Pitter.
“The Board must have the opportunity to view the information and present questions if necessary … Why is it that no other Board member was provided with this preliminary documentation? John Gesmonde, YOUR [sic] MAKING UP RULES AS YOU GO ALONG … Ms. Pitter, Mr. Fred Anderson and myself request the opportunity to recant our votes … We are requesting an emergency Board meeting to occur ASAP to ensure that no information is submitted to the State until a legal Board meeting occurs.”
At 4:03 p.m., Gesmonde wrote back: “For the ‘umpteenth’ time, the meeting that was held last evening was absolutely legal, despite the opinion of the other lawyers on the Board of Directors, or Mr. Pitter. Sending each member a copy of the statute, not once, but twice, plus the participation of the Board attorney did not assuage the need of some Board members to defy the State at all costs. Obviously, the result of this email [rescinding the votes for the action plan], if it is to stand, is to end the school. Furthermore, it is apparent that it has been the intent of some Board members to have the charter revoked or to have it returned to the State, presumably in retaliation for the actions it took against Mr. Pitter. Irrespective of one’s opinion with regards to the latter, why would any of you want to jeopardize this wonderful school? You will have the opportunity to explain to the parents, teachers, and children why you decided to undo a promising result for the continuation of the school. Your comments are incomprehensible …
“By your unforgivable actions, you will cause hundreds of thousands of dollars to be lost by creditors and vendors, who, I dare say, will not sit idly by. I suggest that you each consult private counsel. You have suspended our legal advisors, so we are now a ship without a rudder …
“As you might have surmised by this time, the documents have already been filed with SDE, as we voted to do last night … At this point, we are beyond the stage of preferences and professional niceties. You want the school to die? Don’t contact me by 9AM tomorrow (Friday). You want the school to live? Retract your email by 9AM tomorrow (Friday) morning … This is the ultimate roadblock. If you stand your ground, everything is done and you can explain your logic and motivations to the press and parents … I feel uncomfortable deluding SDE with the impression that a majority of the Board would like to see the school survive, and the parents who called me today on behalf of the Board thanking us for our actions,” Gesmonde wrote.
At 4:54 p.m., teacher/board member Daunis wrote: “I just want to make it clear that when Fatima says, ‘ … the full board …’ she is not including myself, Wesley Daunis. My views and opinions are not aligned with the other board members listed … i stand firmly by what i saw and i [sic] how i voted.”
Friday, June 1, 11:20 a.m. Gesmonde e-mailed the board saying that had he not sent the action plan and documentation to the state May 31, “there would likely not be another day for the school. Your actions have put the entire Board at risk since we have no money to pay teachers for this past week of work … You also claim that ‘most of us want to save Highville’ … did you not tell me last Friday that you had the votes to turn the charter back to the State? That is hard to reconcile with the same majority that wants to save Highville …
“Up until about a week ago, I did not have ‘unfavorable opinions about certain Board members.’ However, starting with last Friday, when you made your statement about the majority of Board members ready to vote to give the charter back, or let it be revoked, and your demand that the interim chancellor draw checks to Mr. Pitter and Ms. Pitter for services not rendered until the end of the year when there is not ten cents in the account to do so per the independent auditor, suggested to me that perhaps, just perhaps, you did not have Highville Mustard Seed Charter School as your top priority.”
Perhaps, just perhaps, that priority has always been Lyndon Pitter.
May 22, 2007
Meanwhile, state deadline looms eerily near for school to reincorporate itself, tidy up loose ends and be forever separate from Pitter
By Sharon Bass
The two Highville Mustard Seed teachers who were suspended with pay -- and abruptly escorted out of the school by a small group of cops -- were spared discipline last night. The Hamden charter school’s board made that decision during a 90-plus-minute executive session.
On May 1, acting chancellor Kimberly Childress put principal Lawrence DiPalma and teacher Wesley Daunis (also a board member) on paid suspension and called the cops. Board chair John Gesmonde would not say why Childress made the move, but inside sources have said former embattled director Lyndon Pitter ordered the suspensions out of retaliation. At last week’s meeting, DiPalma and Daunis were reinstated.
“The matter was investigated and presented to the board,” said Gesmonde, who was Pitter’s attorney during the state investigation that led to his fall from the school he put his name on. Gesmonde said a report of the investigation has to get to the state by May 31.
Board member Richard Riley later said that Childress “had a legitimate reason to make that action.” To which Gesmonde said, “The interim chancellor was only in place for a week [when teachers were suspended] and didn’t know what was going on.” (Childress had actually been in place for a month at that time.)
John Mooney, a Woodbridge accountant, waited in the Leeder Hill Drive school lobby with a small group of parents for the executive session to end. He said Gesmonde asked him to come to the meeting to talk about doing the school audit. Mooney said he did Highville’s last two audits. Asked how they came out, he wouldn’t comment.
But when the public session began, Mooney left.
After announcing there would be no discipline for the teachers, Gesmonde told the board and parents that Mooney has been hired to do the audit and a lawyer has been retained to form the new corporation. According to a corrective action plan just approved by the state Department of Education, the separation of the school from the development corporation, still run by Pitter, must be completed by May 31. And a new corporation and school board created.
In the plan, the Highville board agreed to bring on new board members and to sever Lyndon and his former wife, Nadine Pitter, from any school operations. They are not to receive any state money. The state’s and U.S. attorney’s offices are reviewing the state investigation on the Pitters to determine whether criminal charges should be leveled.
Parents were significantly smaller in number last night (about a dozen) and also significantly calmer. Last week, many were riled up and vented during public session. Distrust lingers heavily but the strong desire to keep the charter school open seems to outweigh all.
“The only thing we have to do is get to the finish line financially,” said Gesmonde. He said the Connecticut Association of School Business Officials could come to Highville’s aid. In fact, because of the school’s fragile condition (it’s on probation for the second time) it could qualify for free care under CASBO’s “swat team,” Gesmonde said.
“It would be a wonderful thing to have them come in and help us,” he said. “CASBO comes into a troubled school district and tells you what you’re doing wrong. We need guidance and want to pass it on to the new board. We want our business component to be as good as our educational component.”
But, as is his wont, Gesmonde downplayed the turmoil.
“The troubles that Highville is having are not unique,” he said. “If we were so unusual we wouldn’t be getting letters [from outside firms like CASBO] to help. We need intervention. I want somebody like these experts to come in.”
Parents asked about the teachers’ contracts. Childress gave the faculty and staff notices last month saying their contracts would not be renewed.
“We’re almost ready to send out new contracts,” said Gesmonde.
Daunis said it’s typical to get the yearly contracts late. He said the 2006-07 agreements didn’t reach teachers’ mailboxes until “well into April.”
The number of teachers rehired depends on the number of enrollees. The school currently has 300 students but because of the uncertainty of whether Highville will be open in September, some parents have enrolled their kids elsewhere.
Also, Gesmonde said the school might be short of money. “We have to utilize our credit lines,” he said. The audit, which should be ready next week, will determine whether the school has enough money to operate.
Riley said donations and grants have dropped since the investigation started in fall 2005. “Because of the situation we’re in it’s hard to ask for money,” he said. The state pays $8,000 per child.
“Is there money for payroll this week?” asked Daunis.
“Yes, definitely,” said board member Fatima Ennis.
Two hours earlier
While the board was in executive session, parents talked about the "soap opera,” as one called it.
Kevin Walton, a New Haven father of two children at the school, said he wants to be on the search committee that will choose the new board. He does not trust the current members.
“We need some good people to help transition” from one board to the next, he said of the search committee. “We need people who know education, human resources. Some good community people invested in good education. Parents and teachers. That’s the beauty of a private school.” (Highville is a public school.)
Teacher Daunis was sitting with the parents. He confirmed reports earlier given to the HDN that he complained to Childress about Nadine Pitter’s performance as school nurse, which is allegedly the reason Lyndon Pitter had Childress put him on paid suspension. Daunis said after the complaint was made, on April 21 Pitter came to the school and viciously yelled at him and principal DiPalma, who also got suspended, outside Daunis’ classroom. Pitter was not supposed to be on school grounds.
“A lot of the teachers had the same concerns about her nursing style,” said Daunis, 29, who’s been a Highville teacher for four years. Asked about Childress calling the police to escort him out, he said, “I’m like the most passive person around.”
“I’ve had such little sleep over this,” a parent said. “It’s so unnerving. We love this school. It’s almost a family.” She called Pitter’s transgressions an “infidelity.” She also said she doesn’t trust that the current board will really cut ties with him. Also on April 21, Pitter was allegedly given two checks from board members. The Attorney General’s Office is investigating.
“This is like a soap opera,” another parent said.
Parents came out in droves and in full support of Pitter in September ’05, when the then-board wanted to fire him. That board and the finance director all resigned that month citing Pitter's highly questionable financial actions as the reason.
“He’s smooth,” a mother said of Pitter. “He’s very smooth. He is.”
What turned many around was the attorney general’s report, released in April, outlining the findings of an 18-month investigation into the financial and other wrongdoings of the Pitters: embezzlement of school funds, forgery, outstanding salary advances, giving friends no-bid jobs and a host of other stuff.
“I felt absolutely betrayed,” one parent said.
“Deceived,” said another.
But Pitter’s legacy will not be all dark.
“I think he’s a very smart man. I think it’s a really good thing that he’s done with the school,” a mother said. “With everything that went wrong, I always thought it would be better for him to have walked away with some dignity.”
At the next meeting (either May 29 or May 30), Gesmonde said he hopes to have a rep from CASBO speak to the board and might present the audit report.
May 17, 2007
Board agrees to state’s terms, but parents are beyond belief
By Sharon Bass
The Highville Mustard Seed board had two choices last night: either pass a corrective action plan that should satisfy the state -- or don't. Don't would mean a revocation of its charter and the school would fold.
After a 45-minute executive session, the board chose to keep its charter and keep teaching the school’s 300 kids. It unanimously voted to re-incorporate the school and choose a new board, and separate it physically and financially from its parent corporation. Disgraced former school director, Lyndon Pitter, and his ex-wife, Nadine, the former school nurse, will continue to run the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation. But the state will not allow the Pitters to receive or handle one tax penny or have any involvement with the school whatsover. They currently provide janitorial and maintenance services to the school, but board chair John Gesmonde said that will stop by May 31 -- the state deadline for the plan.
Gesmonde, a Hamden lawyer, promised a roomful of anxious, skeptical parents several times that the plan will be carried out.
The room was thick in doubt. There were nonstop questions. And anger. And cries of: “You’re lying to us,” and “You promised that before.” And heated debate over who gets to pick the new school board.
“How can you ensure parents this [plan] will be accepted by the state” when the last one wasn’t, asked a parent.
“If for any reason this doesn’t bear fruit, the state department will have to explain,” said Gesmonde. He said the state didn’t accept the plan submitted a couple of weeks ago because it changed its mind about the conditions regarding Lyndon Pitter. Gesmonde failed to tell the audience that the state had learned that Pitter was using state-paid charter school teachers for his private preschool -- something everyone knew was forbidden -- which partly prompted the rejection of the plan.
The state Department of Education has forced Hamden’s only charter school to submit a corrective action plan based on the findings of an 18-month investigation by the attorney general, the state auditors and the ed dept. They found Lyndon Pitter took salary advances he never repaid, bought lavish, personal items with school dollars, forged college degrees, and more. Findings also showed that the board, handpicked by Pitter, was not providing proper oversight. The school was put on probation for a second time in March, when the findings of the inquiry were made public.
“We have placed the responsibility on the board,” said Tom Murphy of the DOE. He said his department will review the corrective action plan today.
There are allegations that on April 21 two board members signed school checks over to Pitter. Murphy said the board has been instructed to investigate. During the executive session last night, parents talked with each other about Pitter getting the checks and said they just want to be rid of him and keep open the school they are so enthralled with.
Also, Ira Saferstein of Weston, owner of 130 Leeder Hill Road where Highville is, said he receives just one check of $27,000 a month from the development corporation, though Pitter also runs his private, tuition-based preschool at the site, Global Kids Academy, which is not supposed to use any state funds or resources, such as teachers. Murphy said he was told that Pitter supposedly reimburses the school for the Global portion of the rent. The state is looking into it.
"The parents should have a voice"
After the board approved the corrective plan that Gesmonde said would save the charter, one parent after another angrily criticized the board for not reacting sooner to the “situation” at the school and said they had no faith left in any of them.
“I don’t want this board to have anything to do with the new board,” a mother said. “I have no trust in them and their past indiscretions.”
Gesmonde had told the crowd that the current board would help select a new one.
“We were told there would be no involvement with this board forming a new board,” another parent said. “What happened, when at the last meeting we were told the state would be involved in a new board?”
“I jumped the gun,” said Gesmonde. “I wanted to get this done as soon as possible so the school would stay open.”
A father forcefully asked, “Why did it take you so long to save Highville? It’s been two years [since the state began its investigation]. And you want us to sit here and accept you choosing a new board? You are insulting our intelligence!”
Board member David Lee said the “state doesn’t understand African-American education” and that Highville is a private school. (It’s not.)
A parent blurted out that Highville is a public school.
A mother said that during the state investigation (which has resumed because of recent revelations), Pitter would tell parents he was being targeted by the state because he's black.
“I stand before you with a heavy heart,” said a mother. “It’s gone entirely too far. The board needs to get more input from parents. Our children are being dragged through the mud. The parents should have a voice.”
Over the parents’ din of indignation, Gesmonde tried to downplay the situation.
“Our only problem has been in the business aspect,” he said. ‘This board has shepherded your children through the process. Mistakes were made perhaps in the business aspect of the corporation. But I haven’t heard one complaint about the educational process.”
A parent said, “That’s not why we’re here.”
Gesmonde continued. “Nobody here has done anything intentional. The board didn’t know it was wrong,” he said.
After a heated back and forth between parents and the board about how the new board will be chosen, Gesmonde said parents and current board members will form a steering committee. A parent asked the chair to make an addendum to the corrective action plan saying that parents will serve on the committee, but he wouldn’t. It remained a verbal agreement.
“We are going to ask for people who are qualified instead of the state choosing the board,” said parent board member Fatina Ennis.
Highville parents say they are still struggling with what to do with their children despite Gesmonde's word that the charter won't be revoked. Take a chance that Highville stays open? Or play it safe and put their kids into regular public schools? In Hamden, about a dozen Mustard Seed students were recently enrolled in Church Street School for the next school year.
Zakiyyah Baker of West Haven said by the time she learned of all the troubles at Highville it was too late to get her children on the lottery for New Haven’s magnet schools.
“I think I speak on behalf of all parents at Highville that we wish we had known the school is in jeopardy,” she said.
“It’s a good school. It’s just everything that’s going on around the school,” said parent Tiwan Baker. “Are we going to come to school and find the doors not opened? I feel if Pitter is what he says he is, he would understand his role is somewhere else. It’s not here.”
Ricky Bulls spoke of how his 4-year-old son is thriving at Mustard Seed. “He has friends. He comes in the building in the morning in the cafeteria and he has three children who give him a hug and talk to him and give him a hug,” he said. “And then he goes to class.”
“I have lost total confidence in the board,” a parent said. “For the first time, perhaps this is no longer the place to send my children.
The Highville board will meet again on May 21 at 6 p.m. to figure out how to make the transition from one board to another and find a new management team.
May 11, 2007
After yet another discovery this week of wrongdoing at the Highville charter school, state rolls up its sleeves with an ultimatum
By Sharon Bass
Lyndon Pitter's tight hold on the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School is atrophying.
Despite numerous findings of embezzlement, lying, forging and other dishonest acts committed by the former director and his ex-wife. Despite scathing conclusions of an 18-month state investigation. Despite the attorney general ordering him to be removed from the school last year. The man -- some call a charmer and others call a very slick con artist -- has triumphed time and again with the extremely loyal, perhaps blind, support of his board of directors -- all of whom he handpicked. Though the state has demanded that Pitter and his ex, Nadine Pitter, have nothing to do with the Hamden charter school, it seems they always find a back door in.
Now they may have run out of doors.
Another door was located Wednesday, which might be the final straw. The state now says the school, on probation for the second time, will lose its charter next month if all the conditions set in a May 10 letter from state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan are not met.
On Wednesday, the commissioner talked with some Mustard Seed teachers about the school in general, when he learned they are also teaching at Pitter's private preschool, Global Kids Academy, also housed in the 130 Leeder Hill building. Highville officials had promised the state there exists a clean financial division between Global and the charter school. The preschool, they reportedly told the education department, used no charter school teachers or resources and operated 100 percent on tuition that was sent to Pitter's development corporation.
But that was a lie.
“It was revealed [Wednesday] that teachers from the charter school have been teaching at the private-tuition-based preschool program,” said state ed department spokesman Tom Murphy. “In the course of the discussion [with McQuillan] teachers were asked if they still had to teach at the Global Kids Academy even though they are paid by the charter school, which raises serious concerns. We're making it clear there has to be a separation of schools and not sharing teachers or funds or resources.” The state has no jurisdiction over private preschools, he said.
“We have called for insisting upon an addendum to the corrective action plan [the school board approved Wednesday] that requires a further separation between the development corporation and the charter school,” said Murphy. “They want to keep [Pitter] in the corporation.”
Yesterday, McQuillan wrote a letter to Highville attorney Stephen Sedor of the Bridgeport law firm Durant, Nichols, Houston, Hodgson & Cortese-Costa saying: “No further state funds can pass through the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation while Lyndon or Nadine Pitter remains employed or involved with the corporation in any way.”
This means Pitter cannot sell the janitorial and maintenance services to the school, as the board approved in the corrective action plan on May 9. And he can no longer be the middle man with the rent payments. For an unknown reason, the school sends the monthly checks to Pitter's development corporation (which had been located where the school is but may have recently moved) and Pitter then sends them to the landlord, Ira Saferstein of Weston.
Murphy said the rent, which is state tax money, will now bypass the corporation and go directly to Saferstein.
Reached at his home, Saferstein said he's just peripherally aware of the goings-on at Mustard Seed through media accounts. “It's really not my business, if they're working there and paying the rent,” he said.
Saferstein is the manager of Titan Capital in Westport. He said he bought the Leeder Hill property in January. The city of New Haven leases 80 percent of the 143,886-square- foot building. Highville is charged about $27,000 a month for much of the remainder, he said.
The property agent is Willinger, Willinger & Bucci, a Bridgeport law firm.
Asked for comment on the discovery that Highville teachers are also staffing Pitter's private preschool, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal said, “The [May 10] letter from the state Board of Education seems to be consistent with the recommendations made in our report. We just received the letter and we're reviewing it.”
A message left with Highville board chair, Hamden lawyer John Gesmonde, was not returned.
May 10, 2007
Stephen Sedor, Esq.
Dear Mr. Sedor:
I read this morning’s news accounts about the action taken by the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation’s Board of Directors to accept the corrective action plan which we agreed to. However, I must convey to you new concerns I have as a result of hearing from the Highville teachers yesterday at a meeting I attended with them, and make a correction to your amendment to the corrective action plan which is contained in your letter dated May 9, 2007.
I met with the teachers to discuss the future of Highville, and was impressed by their seeming professionalism and dedication. Among other things, we discussed the fact that the Global Kids Academy (GKA) would continue to operate from the same premises as the charter school, but continue to be a separate operation from it. During the course of that discussion, a teacher asked whether he and his colleagues should continue with their teaching responsibilities at the GKA. He indicated that he and other teachers teach at the Academy, but are paid by the charter school.
When GKA started, this office sought and received assurances from your office that the operations were totally separate and that no state funds for the charter school were being used for GKA. We would not have permitted state funds for the charter school to be used for a tuition based program operated by the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation. Based on assurances that there would be no commingling of funds, we raised no objections to the corporation operating GKA.
The information I received last night puts a different light on my agreement that the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation can play any part at all in the new corporation which will operate the school. Since Mr. Pitter will remain an employee of the corporation, I can no longer agree that the corporation can provide any services whatsoever to the new corporation and the school. Those services that we had agreed to were janitorial and custodial services for the new school. I will allow the corporation to sublease space to the school, but will insist that rent be paid by the state directly to the landlord of the building. No further state funds can pass through the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation while Lyndon or Nadine Pitter remains employed or involved with the corporation in any way.
To the extent that your letter of May 9, 2007 suggests that Lyndon Pitter cannot be involved in any bidding process by the existing corporation for services to the new school, this letter should clarify that the corporation may not provide any services to the new school if Mr. Pitter is involved in the corporation in any way.
Unless you agree to the foregoing, as an addition to the corrective action plan, I will move to revoke Highville’s charter at the June meeting of the State Board of Education. I am also awaiting the result of your investigation into the payment of Mr. Pitter’s outstanding claims and severance payments, and the suspension of the teachers. These investigations must be completed and the results reported to me by May 21, 2007.I may take further action as a result of these investigations.
Please respond to this letter no later than Monday, May 14, 2007.
Mark K. McQuillan
cc: Honorable Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General
John Gesmonde, Board Chairperson, Highville Mustard Seed Charter School
Robert G. Jaekle and Kevin P. Johnston, Auditors of Public Accounts
Mark A. Stapleton, Esq., chief, Division of Legal and Governmental Affairs
Frances Rabinowitz, Associate Commissioner of Education
Jack Hasegawa, Chief, Office of Education Equity
Raymond Inzero, Chief, Office of Internal Audit
Karen M. Flanagan, Esq., Division of Legal and Governmental Affairs
State to decide whether it flies
By Sharon Bass
Highville Mustard Seed parents like Toni Foreman say they're worried about what will happen to their children if the Leeder Hill charter school is shuttered. Its fate lies in the hands of the eight board members. The state ed department has insisted a plan be drawn up to address the many problems that have plagued the school -- disclosed after an 18-month state investigation -- including embezzlement and lying by the former director and his ex-wife, as well as inadequate oversight by the board, stocked with fans of the former director, Lyndon Pitter.
The school is on probation for the second time. The plan must meet state muster to continue.
“My concern is if the school will be open next year. I took yesterday off work” to try to get her 5-year-old who attends Highville into the Wintergreen lottery, said Foreman of Hamden. But she was too late.
She and an overflowing crowd of parents, kids and teachers piled into a stuffy, hot room at the charter school last night to see what the board would do to keep the place open.
According to Tom Murphy of the state Department of Education, the plan must address three critical conditions outlined in the March probation letter: the Pitters can no longer be associated with the school; restitution of an embezzled $60,791 must be made; and a written assurance that “there are systems in place at the school to ensure public funds are appropriately spent.”
Before the board could decide about the Pitters' employment at the school, chair John Gesmonde read resignations letters from each of them. Pitter's ex-wife, Nadine, was a nurse at the school.
Gesmonde, also a Hamden lawyer who recently represented Lyndon, said the letters just came in “moments ago.” He read Nadine's first.
“I never thought I'd have to leave such a great school as Highville ... I look forward to new challenges,” she wrote.
And Lyndon Pitter's letter said in part: “I respectfully submit my resignation ... effective immediately. It's been my greatest job to work with the board and parents.”
Neither Pitter mentioned or apologized for the hell the school has gone through since fall 2005, when the investigation kicked off. Even when Attorney General Dick Blumenthal caught Lyndon lying about having a college degree and forging diplomas, there was no apology or admission of guilt. And the board dismissed it saying Blumenthal was on a witch hunt.
With that letter we close the chapter of Mr. Pitter's leadership in Highville,” said Gesmonde.
The board approved both resignations. One member said he wanted the record to show that the Pitters were not fired; they quit.
There's still Lyndon Pitter's role as director of the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation, which leases out the school building and provides janitorial and maintenance services. The latest plan allows these moneymakers to continue for three years.
Work in Progress
The school's deadline to submit the corrective action plan to the state was April 30. When it missed that deadline, it was shoved back to May 7. The draft came in on time but was incomplete, said Murphy. He said the department had planned to review the revision before Wednesday's board meeting, but the amended plan was not forwarded.
It's still a work in progress,” he said. “We've accepted it in principle because it does contain the major components. But there are a lot of other issues such as how they will achieve these things. What methods. What time lines.”
The Chancellor's Questionable Suspensions
Gesmonde said the original plan didn't include the two teachers, Lawrence DiPalma and Wesley Daunis, whom the new chancellor Kimberly Childress suspended with pay May 1. “But certain individuals told the state,” he said.
Blumenthal suggested the suspensions were out of retaliation and has resurrected his investigation of Highville for that and other reasons. His findings from the investigation that concluded this March have been shipped to the state's and U.S. attorneys' offices for possible criminal charges against the Pitters.
“The state keeps criticizing the board,” said Gesmonde. “But many of the board members have only been on for three months, which was after the attorney general's report of the infractions, as they are called. The state can make these demands because they control charters.”
The “infractions” the chair referred to include the embezzling of state funds earmarked for the school that the Pitters spent on lavish items, like silk scarves and Armani suits, and expensive vacations; salary advances they took and reportedly didn't repay; Nadine being paid her full salary while attending nursing school full time during the charter school operating hours; and other findings of wrongdoing.
“Do we as a board have to question every decision our chancellor makes?” a board member asked.
“Absolutely not,” said Gesmonde. “But only the board can hire and fire and her suspensions could be interpreted as a firing.”
Also in the corrective action plan is a provision for a new board. It reads: “Because of the concern that the public may perceive the new board to have an interest in the current Board, the Chairman recommends that a new procedure be implemented to select the original members of the new Board within thirty days. Highville shall work with the SDE [state Department of Education] to ensure a selection process of new Board members that negates any inference that the members of the new Board have any interest in the operation of the current Board.”
Also, in response to the repayment of the $60,791 Pitter allegedly owes, the plan states: “Highville will continue to negotiate with the State regarding the repayment of this sum of money. It further wishes to again extend the invitation to speak with Lynn Durand, the accountant for the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation, in order to confirm that the sum being sought by the State are not State funds.”
The board approved the corrective action plan. Murphy said the state will review it by the end of this week.
May 4, 2007
By Sharon Bass
The state has given the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School a sharp due date of next Monday to submit a plan showing how it will clean up its act. After a one-and-a-half-hour meeting Thursday between the Hamden charter school board and the state ed commissioner, it was reportedly crystal clear exactly what the state wants. This is the school's third, and perhaps last, chance to get it right.
“It's safe to say the representatives from the school left with a clear understanding of the expectations,” said Department of Education spokesperson Tom Murphy. “We think it was a productive meeting.” Board chair John Gesmonde and the lawyer met with education Commissioner Mark McQuillan and his assistant.
Gesmond did not return a message seeking comment.
Highville was to hold a board meeting about the corrective plan yesterday evening, but it was moved to May 9.
The state put the school on probation March 20, following an 18-month investigation that found executive director, Lyndon Pitter, and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, had embezzled public funds for extravagant personal use, taken salary advances and not repaid them, among other wrongdoings. Also found was “a serious lack of appropriate oversight by the board of directors,” according to the March 20, 2007, probation letter from the state.
It further states: “It does not appear that the Board is willing to hold Lyndon Pitter or Nadine Pitter accountable for their misuse of school funds or any other acts of wrongdoing, including the submission to the State of Connecticut of forged documents showing degrees at a bachelor’s and master’s level. This raises serious concerns about the Board’s objective judgment with respect to the Pitters.”
According to many accounts, Pitter stocks his boards with strong allies who won't say no to his requests, no matter how outlandish. A House bill has been presented this session requiring that a member of the local board of education sit on charter boards. The provision was inspired by the problems on the Highville board, Murphy said .
He said the corrective plan must address three critical conditions: the Pitters can no longer be associated with the school; restitution of an embezzled $60,791 must be made; and a written assurance that “there are systems in place at the school to ensure public fund are appropriately spent.”
But it is well known that Nadine is still acting as the school nurse, which Murphy said is not allowable. Lyndon is the president of the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation and is trying to sell services, such as food and nursing, to the school because he can no longer get a paycheck (however it has not yet been determined if he is still being paid). Murphy said if the board wants to pay him with personal money, that would be OK. But the Pitters cannot receive a public cent.
“We'll continue to review their finances,” said Murphy.
Though the 130 Leeder Hill school is going through a rough transition, many feel it is a good educational environment and are afraid it will be shuttered. Murphy said the state does not want to do that and is working to find a remedy -- either through a valid corrective plan or by finding another organization to oversee the charter school.
Parents waiting for their kids to get out of school late yesterday afternoon expressed concern and praise. One father of two said his boys have gone to the school for years and are acclimated and doing well. He said he had planned to attend the Thursday board meeting because he is worried whether the school will survive the scandals, as well as how the disruptive school atmosphere is affecting students. This past Tuesday, two teachers were surprised with paid suspensions and the new chancellor Kimberly Childress called the police to ensure the men left the property without incident, which they did.
Attorney General Dick Blumenthal suspects the suspensions may have been out of retaliation by Lyndon Pitter, and he is investigating the matter.
“I think the school has shown a lot of academic success. It's a plus for Hamden,” said Councilman Curt Leng, who's known Lyndon Pitter since the late 1990s. At that time, Leng was chair of the State Street Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Committee while Pitter chaired the Highwood Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Committee. Leng's wife, Stephanie Cervoni Leng, teachers at the school.
Leng has had a consulting gig with Highville since last November. His six-month contract expires May 20 and the councilman said it was mutually agreed not to be renewed “because of all the restructuring that's happening.”
May 3, 2007
Hamden charter school is pushed further under the state microscope; a House bill is partly inspired by the school's reported ills
By Sharon Bass
Since learning earlier this week about new problems at the Highville Mustard Seed School -- including the highly questionable suspension of two teachers -- the state education commissioner and his assistant plan to ask some tough questions in a meeting today with the Hamden charter school board chair and attorney. And Attorney General Dick Blumenthal is reopening his investigation of the scandal-rocked 130 Leeder Hill school.
If it has a future, it is unclear.
Meanwhile, because of a host of wrongdoings unearthed during an 18-month state investigation of the school, House Bill 1408 was introduced this session. It proposes to increase charter school enrollments and increase funding as well as add a new accountability system for charter boards. This would require every board to include a member of its local Board of Education, selected by that board
“That will give it some balance as opposed to be handpicked by the executive director,” said Tom Murphy, state Department of Education spokesman. He said the bill was triggered by the problems on the Highville board.
Even though the school's former director, Lyndon Pitter, and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, were found to have embezzled public money from the school to buy luxury items and vacations; given friends contracts and taken salary advances and not repaid them, the board Pitter has stocked with steadfast allies has consistently overlooked -- or not believed -- his wrongdoings. Those wrongdoings are now in the hands of the state's and U.S. attorneys' offices for possible criminal charges.
At yesterday's monthly state board meeting, Murphy said brand new education Commissioner Mark McQuillan brought the members up to date on the Highville situation.
“Board members had expressed concern about the letter of probation [Mustard Seed got in March] and the charter school board's responsibility to respond to that letter and the requirements,” Murphy said.
The probation letter said the charter had until April 9 to respond with a corrective action plan to the many findings of the state investigation. (Click here for the list of findings and recommendations.)
“And [the state board] was concerned that it's now May 2 and” there's no plan in sight, said Murphy. “We accepted the board's position that they didn't understand what they needed to do even though it seemed to be pretty straight forward.” When the April 9 deadline arrived, the state gave the Mustard board until the first week of May to comply.
“They're very concerned on the state board that this charter school is mired in difficulty,” he said.
An investigation is an investigation
AG Blumenthal said he contacted the chief state's and U.S. attorney's offices, in Rocky Hill and New Haven respectively, about the Highville investigation.
“I can't tell you what if anything they're doing,” he said during a phone interview yesterday. “We are investigating all of the facts and circumstances relating to recent reports of turmoil at the school, including the suspension of the teachers yesterday. We will speak to anyone that has relevant knowledge.”
Highville teachers Lawrence DiPalma and Wesley Daunis were put on paid suspension Tuesday. Some say it was out of retaliation because they complained to the new school chancellor about Nadine Pitter's nursing skills. Pitter and her ex, Lyndon, are not supposed to be on the premises or get paid by the school but inside sources say she is there every day serving as the school nurse.
“We're concerned the suspensions could be related to their [DiPalma's and Daunis'] public comments and was in some way in retaliation or retribution for their exercise of free speech,” Blumenthal said. “The basic point here is we along with the auditors and the Department of Education are jointly investigating recent facts and circumstances. I don't know whether it's a reopening or a continuation. Not that it really matters. This situation is somewhat unusual because it is an ongoing set of issues that apparently require additional investigation.” In March, he released a 115-page document of findings against the Pitters.
Time has technically run out
When Mustard Seed board chair John Gesmonde and the board's attorney meet today with McQuillan and deputy ed commissioner George Coleman “they're going to go over the expectations set forth in the probation letter and make sure the requirements are met,” said Murphy.
He said Lyndon Pitter and Nadine Pitter can no longer be associated with the school in any fashion or receive a dime. But Lyndon, who now calls himself the acting president of the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation, is suspected of being paid with school money. He reportedly wants to sell school services to the charter, such as food and nursing, which the state is deeply frowning upon.
“We're skeptical that a relationship with a parent organization would be workable,” said Murphy.
The state also wants the charter school board to include in its corrective plan how it will act responsibly. “There's requirements that the board show capacity to address governance issues and meet their responsibility that they oversee the school and make sure public dollars are spent correctly,” he said .
And Pitter needs to repay over 80,000 tax dollars he illegally took. If all the conditions are not satisfied, the school is in danger of having its charter revoked and either being shut down or passed on to new directorship, Murphy said. This is the second time Highville has been put on probation for wrongdoings.
Skepticism is certainly in the air. Though the Pitters have been ordered off the property, not only is Nadine reportedly there but “we've heard reports that Mr. Pitter continues to have a position at the school and continues to be on the payroll,” said Murphy.
“We're also concerned that [the Highville board] doesn't fully understand that there's a real concern about Mr. Pitter's association with the school,” he said. “That association is just not acceptable. The state board was pretty clear in expressing their disappointment with the board [during yesterday's meeting] and indicated that if these things aren't resolved soon or by summer then that school will not be here in the fall.”
Murphy said the Mustard Seed board must understand that it is “responsible for overseeing the charter and upholding state and federal laws, and to appropriate public funds with a respect for the law.”
On April 28, the new chancellor, Kimberly Childress -- appointed by Lyndon Pitter to take over the school when he was forced out -- gave all teachers and staff resignation letters with their paychecks. Asked if the letters are valid, Murphy said the state board's attorney said because the future of the school is uncertain “they felt obligated to tell the teachers that their contract would not be renewed.” State law requires such notification.
“It is possible that the school will stay in place. It's up to them [board members],” Murphy said.
May 2, 2007
By Sharon Bass
The embattled former director of Hamden's only charter school gave pink slips to teachers and staff last Friday, apparently dragging them out along with him.
After an investigation that began in November 2005 and was concluded this March, the state ordered Lyndon Pitter and his ex-wife, Nadine Pitter, to be removed from the Highville Mustard Seed School for embezzlement, giving friends contracts and a host of other findings. And the school has been put on probation. Again.
The termination letters were enclosed in employees' paychecks on April 28, confirmed three sources (two teachers and someone close to the scene), who asked not to be identified. A source paraphrased the gist of the letter: “Due to the uncertainty of enrollment the following school year, your contract will not be renewed.”
According to state statute, school districts, including charter schools, must notify teachers by April 1 if there's a possibility of being laid off in the next school year.
The new “chancellor” Kimberly Childress -- appointed by Pitter on April 2 after he was forced out -- reportedly signed the termination notices since Pitter is not supposed to have any dealings with the school. And though Nadine Pitter has also been ordered to stay away, sources say she is still there every day as the nurse.
Then yesterday morning, Childress put teachers Lawrence DiPalma and Wesley Daunis on paid suspension and called Hamden police to escort them out of the 130 Leeder Hill building, the sources said. Sgt. John Testa verified the 11:37 a.m. call, saying it was to “prevent a breach of peace.” No arrests were made and it was uneventful.
“Those two [teachers] did nothing other than think of the school's best interest,” a source said, claiming the suspensions were in retaliation. DiPalma had recently complained to Childress about Nadine's performance, which triggered Lyndon's anger, said the source.
“Nadine shows up about three or four hours a day and basically hangs out in the cafeteria talking with the staff,” the source said. “Nadine doesn't treat the students who come to her. A child came to her with a bloody nose and she told her to blow her nose. There was a kid with a pink eye. Nadine called the parent and sent the kid back to the classroom. She'll tell kids who are throwing up to go back to class.”
On April 21, shortly after DiPalma's alleged complaint to Childress, sources say Lyndon Pitter stormed into the school looking for DiPalma and Daunis. They were in Daunis' classroom.
“And Mr. Pitter [went into the classroom] and cursed out Mr. DiPalma and Mr. Daunis,” a source said. “He said, 'I didn't step down. I stepped to the side.' All because Mr. Daunis went to Miss Childress and said he was concerned that there's not adequate nursing coverage.”
The source said the teachers walked away from Pitter while he yelled at them: “Don't make me get niggerish on you.” Reportedly, a father and his child witnessed the outburst.
Daunis is the staff rep on the board, but sources say information has been routinely withheld from him.
An eyeful and an earful
After learning about the termination letters yesterday, the HDN went to the Leeder Hill school around 3:30 p.m. to speak with Childress. The school receptionist Shirley (last name unknown) said Childress was on a conference call and to leave a phone number. But the HDN decided to stick around.
Asked if she got a termination letter, Shirley said, “I have a contract that ends at the end of the year.” Asked again, she refused to answer.
A large woman walked by the receptionist's desk with a few small children in front of her. “I'm gonna beat your head,” she yelled out to one of them. Seeing this reporter turn her head in shock, Shirley said, “She was just fooling.”
Several minutes later, a little girl with braided hair sat on the floor next to Shirley. “I'm gonna punch your eye out,” the receptionist said to the student. “Your mother is gonna punch your eye out.” The girl showed no reaction.
Teacher Stephanie Cervoni Leng, wife of Councilman Curt Leng, and a male teacher then appeared, asking to talk to Childress. Both look distressed. Neither would comment about what was going on. A few minutes later, they went into the chancellor's office.
At around 4:10 p.m., Shirley said she had forgotten that Childress had a class to teach, although most of the children had gone home, and wouldn't have time to talk to this reporter. When Childress emerged from her office a couple of minutes later, she would only say that two staff members were escorted out of the building by police Tuesday. She denied termination letters had been handed out last Friday. She denied anything was wrong. And then briskly walked away.
Lyndon Pitter could not be reached for comment.
The HDN reported the news to Attorney General Dick Blumenthal's office. He responded in an e-mailed statement at 5:48 p.m.: “My office is deeply troubled by recent reports about disruptive events at the Highville Mustard Seed charter school, and we will investigate immediately with the state Department of Education."
Mustard Seed was put on probation in March for the second time, said Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state Department of Education. His department, the AG's and the auditors of public accounts conducted the roughly 18-month investigation.
On April 13, 2006, Blumenthal publicy announced that Lyndon had lied to the charter school board and to the state about having a college education and had forged diplomas. He demanded his removal from the school. But the board didn't want to fire him and instead gave him a new title. Pitter remained in the school and collected his salary and virtually nothing changed.
Murphy said for the school to be taken off probation, the board must meet certain conditions, including getting rid of the Pitters and getting restitution of the “10s of thousands of tax dollars” the couple spent on such luxuries as Armani suits and vacations. (Click here for the list of findings and recommendations.) Murphy said Lyndon Pitter has repaid just a “small amount.”
New students cannot be recruited while the school is on probation. Highville's charter expires in spring 2008. If the necessary corrective actions are not taken, Murphy said “the chances are very slim the charter will get renewed.”
If not renewed, the school could be shuttered or a new party could take over, he said.
The handpicked board -- all Pitter loyalists -- submitted a corrective action plan to the state about three weeks ago.
“They were proposing that Pitter would continue in some capacity in a parent organization that would provide services to the school, and that was not met with great enthusiasm by the department,” said Murphy. “The acting commissioner asked the board to go back and rethink this.”
The board “are all his friends,” said a source. “They've had so many board meetings this year where there was no quorum. There'd be just two people, but as soon as Mr. Pitter needed a vote for something he wanted, they'd show up. They voted for everything he wanted.” The current board chair is John Gesmonde, also Pitter's lawyer.
Murphy said he is aware of the makeup of the board. “Our eyebrows are raised on that,” he said. “There need to be checks and balances and there don't appear to be any.” Asked if the Pitters are still on the payroll, Murphy said he didn't know because the school “consistently files their financial reports late.”
Keeping a hand in the cookie jar
Pitter is the acting president of the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation, and according to sources is charging the school rent. It is unclear where the corporation is located. Receptionist Shirley said it's on Whitney Avenue.
“What the board wants to do is purchase the service contracts from the corporation, such as the food, nursing, managerial and global education curriculum written by Pitter,” said a source, “so he can have a steady income because he can't get paid by the school.” The nursing service is Nadine.
But sources say Pitter has never materialized his curriculum and they question whether it exists.
“He's a con artist. He's gotten over a million dollars in 10 years in salary from the state. And for doing what? And he's going to keep his hand in the pot,” said one source. “Mr. Pitter is all empty promises. He'd walk into a meeting and we basically knew he was full of it because everything he said never came true. He promised us we'd be trained as specialists for ADD [attention deficit disorder] children. That never happened.”
Asked what it's like at school without Pitter, two of the sources said there's not much difference.
“We're used to Mr. Pitter not being there. He was never there. He'd work from home all the time. And when he was there he'd yell at the staff, like right before [last] Christmas because he was stressed out,” said one source. “He said, 'It's very hard for me to come to school.' He's like a sociopath. He has no conscience. If something bad comes down for him, he has to make it bad for everyone.” Like the April 28 pink slips on the heels of Pitter being removed from the school
Two of the sources also said Pitter was “very good” to the children “in words.” He told the staff never to yell at the students because they've had tough lives.“
But then he'd hold a [staff] meeting until 8:45 in the morning while 300 kids are stuck in the cafeteria,” said one source. He'd hold the teachers captive with long, drawn-out lectures. “We were supposed to be released by 8 o'clock [when school was to commence]. But he could not stay on a schedule. We'd go pick up the kids [in the cafeteria] and they'd be hanging off the walls. The kids were going bonkers.”
Sources also said Pitter is starting a newspaper called the “Emancipated Press.” His former board chair was Mitchell Young, publisher of Business New Haven.
March 16, 2007
Mustard Seed could lose its charter
By Sharon Bass
Lyndon Pitter lied about having a college education and forged diplomas because he has post-traumatic stress disorder. He used his school’s credit cards -- owned by the taxpayers of Connecticut -- to pay for Armani suits, silk scarves, vacations and other luxuries because he didn’t always get his salary.
So says Hamden lawyer John Gesmonde, now chair of the board at Pitter’s Highville Mustard Seed School. The Whitney Avenue attorney represented Pitter during the state investigation of financial and other wrongdoings at the charter school, the results of which were released Wednesday.
“I did personally speak to and receive material from [Pitter’s] treating physician. Falsifying his diploma was absolutely consistent with a person with his condition. She [the doctor] absolutely attributed [lying about having an education] to his condition. The most bizarre behavior was the diplomas,” the lawyer said. He said he didn’t recall the name of Pitter’s doctor or whether she is a psychiatrist or general physician.
If Pitter is that ill, is he capable of leading a school of 300 children?
“He does have some intellectual deficits but he functions at a very high level,” said Gesmonde.
Three state entities, including Attorney General Dick Blumenthal’s Office, just wrapped up a 16-month investigation of Pitter and Hamden’s only charter school. (Click here for their findings and recommendations.) Among their recommendations is for Pitter to be removed. Also, criminal referrals have been made to the chief state’s attorney and U.S. attorney to determine whether to prosecute Pitter.
It’s up to the school board to fire him. The state Department of Education can withhold funding from Mustard Seed, put the school on probation -- again -- and/or deny renewing its charter next June when the current one expires, said Tom Murphy, department spokesman. The school was on probation in 2005 when the inquiry began.
“Probation is a very serious status,” he said. “That is a possibility. Absolutely yes. They have had a second chance. We’re now facing a report that’s pretty conclusive. There’s a forensic audit. There were a number of inappropriate financial activities, possibly illegal.”
In response to Gesmonde’s claim that Pitter used the school’s credit cards in lieu of being paid, Murphy said there are no records indicating that. In fact, he said, Pitter was overpaid.
“He took numerous cash advances in addition to using credit cards. These are serious charges,” said Murphy. “What’s sad about it is it seems to be a functioning school. If they [Highville board members] ignore the findings and recommendations of the attorney general’s report it will be extremely difficult for them to renew their charter. The school may continue to exist or it may not.”
The state gives Highville $2.4 million a year -- $8,000 per student, he said.
Gesmonde said he has little confidence in the report that was issued yesterday. He said it is incomplete and biased.
“It was not a fairly balanced discussion. They [Attorney General’s Office] believed who they chose to believe. Keep in mind, they are not a court of law. They are not a jury. Lyndon Pitter was not given the questions in advance,” said Gesmonde. “Admittedly, the attorney general is on the same team as the department of education. His opinion is a compilation of anecdotes other people have told him which he has put together in a patchwork document.”
The only comment from the AG’s office yesterday was that “the report speaks for itself.”
If History Repeats Itself
Last year, Blumenthal insisted that Pitter be removed from the school after being caught lying about his education and falsifying diplomas saying he had bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of West Indies. But the Mustard Seed Board did not actually remove Pitter. Instead, it created a new title for him and he remained in his office at the Leeder Hill school at his same pay.
Five of those board members are still serving with three new people, said Gesmonde.
Asked if he’d consider firing Pitter as the report recommends, the chair said, “First of all let me say this, the findings from this report are not new. These are the same findings in the forensic report. This all dates back to previous years. The report is very redundant. It could have been written in 10 pages instead of 200.” It’s actually 115 pages.
“Some of this information is not new, but it’s confirmed,” countered Murphy. “We were aware of some of these findings but not all. It’s very serious. We are trying to do our best to separate some of the good that is going on at the school and the malfeasance. It’s really incumbent upon the [charter school] board to react to this report and fulfill its responsibilities of governance and oversight.”
Asked again if he’d consider firing Pitter, Gesmonde said, “I can’t answer that right now.” He said the attorney general didn’t take into consideration Pitter’s PTSD and attention deficit disorder.
“You can’t take Lyndon Pitter out of that school and expect to have the same mentality at that school. He really is the heart and soul of that school. He’s sincere. He’s loved. If you followed him around you’d know there’s something special about him. He’s not a con artist. And he’s not a groupie or a cult guy. There’s something charming and unnerving about him. I’m fond of him. I am. I am,” said Gesmonde.
The state only has funding for 16 charter schools. “There are organizations ready to step up,” said Murphy, adding that two have been granted charters but have to wait because of the lack of funding. “We’re not interested in closing down charters but we do have the expectation that they’ll use state tax money appropriately.”
March 15, 2007
After 16 months of probing, the AG releases a 115-page investigative report of Hamden’s Highville Mustard Seed Charter School
By Sharon Bass
Yesterday, the Attorney General’s Office, the auditors of public accounts and the state Department of Education disclosed its findings. Among their suggestions is to get rid of Lyndon Pitter. But it will be up to his own school board to fire him and up to the state ed department to stop funding his position.
AG Dick Blumenthal said the inquiry was time-consuming because “it involved five investigators and lawyers reviewing thousands of documents, interviewing dozens of people -- current and past employees and board members -- many under oath. It was an exhaustive and intensive investigation. Lyndon Pitter’s sworn testimony required five one-day separate sessions.”
A call to the charter school yesterday was not answered and its voice mail was full.
The report reads: “Our investigation did not concern educational performance by the School, which has become an established learning center. Our investigation, rather, was limited to scrutinizing serious and highly troubling allegations of financial mismanagement and misuse of State funds occurring at the school while Lyndon Pitter was the School’s Executive Director.”
1) Pitter made $78,539 in questionable charges to the school’s credit cards from June 1999 to November 1999. He spent $28,192 on Armani suits, cashmere scarves, silk pajamas, luggage, a down payment on a car and toys and games from FAO Schwartz. Another $6,000 went to electronics, a stay in New York City over the Fourth of July weekend, restaurant bills, rental cars, limousine service and Blockbuster videos.
2) Pitter’s ex-wife, Nadine, was paid her full salary as associate director during the 2003-04 school year while attending Naugatuck Valley Community College for a nursing degree -- during the charter school hours. She was overpaid $27,849 of which she’s repaid nothing.
3) Lyndon Pitter charged $1,521 in personal international long-distance calls to the school account in 2003, 2004 and 2005 and only repaid $544.
4) Lyndon Pitter made questionable charges to the school for travel expenses for Nadine and their children to visit San Francisco and Jamaica. Lyndon also charged Mustard Seed for two roundtrip airline tickets from Minneapolis to Hartford for Nadine Pitter’s husband, Bryan Webster.
5) Lyndon Pitter hired his family members and those of the school’s staff for work at the Leeder Hill charter school. Nadine Pitter had no college degrees or background in education, and at least two teachers were not certified.
6) Lyndon Pitter’s salary of $120,782 appears to be well above those in comparable jobs.
7) Nadine Pitter’s annual earnings of $69,322 also appears to be excessive considering the narrow scope of her job, which by her own admission didn’t include administrative, financial or supervisory responsibilities. Her position requires a bachelor’s degree, which she does not have.
8) Though Lyndon Pitter owes the school $83,069 in personal credit card charges, salary advances and overpayments, he is asking Mustard Seed for $112,140 in unsubstantiated and undocumented alleged expenditures. Pitter’s lawyer, John Gesmonde, submitted the demand and is also the new school board chair.
9) Lyndon Pitter submitted falsified undergrad and master’s degree documents from the University of West Indies to both the board and state. He has no college degrees.
10) A no-bid contract for school renovations was awarded to a close friend of former chief financial officer Dezroy Stewart. The contractor was paid $9,000 more than the contract allowed.
1) Lyndon Pitter should reimburse the school $83,069, which were tax dollars given to Mustard Seed, not him.
2) If the school pays any portion of Lyndon Pitters’ new, undocumented and unsubstantiated claims against the charter school, the state ed department should hold the school responsible for any state funds it gives to Pitter.
3) Lyndon Pitter should no longer be employed by the school and the state ed department should refuse to fund his salary.
4) Nadine Pitter should be removed from her position as associate director. If she stays on as school nurse, her salary should be in line with similar positions.
5) The Mustard Seed board must have defined term limits and establish a search committee to recruit and recommend new members.
6) The Department of Education should submit legislation establishing a process for the appointment of a receiver for charter schools that may have serious financial or operational problems.
“I hope the school will continue,” Blumenthal said in a phone interview. “I strongly support this school because it does worthwhile work. Indeed, I support charter schools in general because they play a vital role in our educational system. They provide parents and students with educational options and diversity. They reduce racial and economic isolation. My hope is the Highville Mustard Seed School will emerge stronger because of this report and the state will help enhance education at charter schools around the state.”
September 11, 2006
By Sharon Bass
The state investigation into Hamden’s only charter school and its founder, Lyndon Pitter, has been going on for about a year. Though seemingly quiet for a number of months now, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal said it is very alive.
Last September, the state ed department began looking into allegations of financial wrongdoing and tampering with CMT results (Highville’s test scores dramatically rose in one year) at the Leeder Hill charter. A few months later, Blumenthal’s office and state auditors joined the investigation of the 8-year-old school.
“My office, working with the State Department of Education and the State Auditors of Public Accounts, is conducting a vigorous and comprehensive investigation of allegations concerning the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School and its founder Lyndon Pitter,” Blumenthal wrote in a statement last week to the HDN.
“We have taken extensive sworn testimony from 17 witnesses and interviewed many others. We have reviewed thousands of pages of documents, including audited financial statements and associated work papers, ledgers, payroll records, and other documentation of revenues and expenditures,” the AG wrote.
Reached through his Wallingford phone number, Pitter said, “I think because it’s involved with the [Highville] Development Corporation and school, I think it would be appropriate for the board chair to address [media questions]. I was asked not to speak on the matter.” He said his personal lawyer is John Gesmonde, of the Whitney Avenue firm of Gesmonde, Pietrosimone, Sgignari & Pinkus.
Messages left for Mustard Seed chair Mitchell Young were not returned.
In September 2005, Highville’s CFO Dezroy Stewart and six of the seven board members walked out, alleging that Pitter and his wife, Nadine Pitter, Highville's associate director and school nurse, bought personal items like pricey silk scarves and suits and took vacations on the school’s dime. (Click here to read their resignation letters.)
"Lyndon had been stealing from the school to buy Armani suits for over $3,000 and his wife [was buying] luggage sets and scarves for over $2,000. [They were] using the school credit card on personal items, over $15,000 a month," Stewart told the HDN last year.
In November, the AG and state auditors got involved.
Then, on April 13, Blumenthal publicly announced that Pitter had lied about having college degrees and had submitted forged diplomas to the state. He called for his immediate removal as director of the school. Two weeks later, the Highville school board voted unanimously to remove Pitter -- as director -- while the state investigation continues.
He wasn't literally removed. The board allowed Pitter to stay at the school in his same office and gave him a new title -- director of strategic planning and resource development. Blumenthal said he was satisfied with the decision.
Asked during yesterday’s phone interview if he still maintains that title, Pitter hung up.
“When the investigation is complete, my office, along with the state Department of Education and the Auditors, will issue a public report on our findings,” Blumenthal concluded his written statement.
Charter schools, like Highville, are public but separate from their local school systems and receive no local funding. They are financed by the state and federal government, grants and fundraisers. Highville's operating budget last fiscal year was $2.7 million.
April 29, 2006
By Sharon Bass
All sides say they are satisfied with the Highville Mustard Seed board's decision last night to demote director Lyndon Pitter. Attorney General Dick Blumenthal had insisted on Pitter's removal on April 13 for lying about having college degrees. The state has been investigating the director since last October for financial wrongdoings.
"The school board has made the right and responsible decision reassigning Lyndon Pitter during the ongoing state investigation," Blumenthal said yesterday. "We recommended Mr. Pitter's reassignment, at least temporarily, based on undisputed facts concerning false documents provided to the board and the state."
In a press release, Department of Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg said, "We have made clear to the leadership of the Highville board, from the very beginning, that it is not our desire to close this school. Indeed, our efforts are directed at addressing management weaknesses at the school to enhance its long-term viability. It appears that the Highville board is beginning to understand this. Once the investigation is completed and findings are issued, we have every hope that the Highville board members will understand the big picture and take appropriate action in their role as independent trustees of the school."
The response, apparently, didn't surprise Highville board chair Mitchell Young.
"We're happy that he agrees with the board and the parents. I think that's a good step for us to move forward," said Young. "The investigation is not over and we still have to secure the future of the school. We did expect all the parties to agree with the decision because it was the right thing to do. We took into account all the community people we talked to and the concerns of the state.
"We found a way to keep Lyndon involved so programs will continue to be developed," he said of the global studies and six-week mandatory summer-school program.
Blumenthal said he was unsure when the investigation would wind down, but said it could happen in May or June.
"The timeline for the investigation is based on cooperation from everyone concerned, as well as other possible factors," he said. "But we never set any timeline for any investigation."
April 28, 2006
The Hamden charter school responds to AG Blumenthal's dictate that the director leave "immediately" for lying
By Sharon Bass
After emotional and tearful dialogue, the Highville Mustard Seed School board voted unanimously last night to remove director Lyndon Pitter while the state investigates him for financial and other misdeeds. On April 13, the attorney general issued a statement demanding Pitter leave the school immediately because he had lied about having college degrees and submitted forged diplomas to the state.
Board chair Mitchell Young told the other five members that Pitter decided to step down until the state investigation, which began last October, concludes.
"This action is voluntary and presented to the board," said Young. He proposed a new job for Pitter as director of strategic planning and resource development, where there would be no day-to-day interaction with teachers or students.
"He can't hire anyone. He can't discipline the kids. He will report to the board," the chair said. The school's personnel committee would design the job.
Young asked for each member's reaction.
"This school is a little bit special than other schools," said board member Richard Riley. "We believe in Pitter's vision." He asked Young if he thought teachers would leave if Pitter were not at the helm.
"I think it's safe to say they drank the lemonade," Young replied. "I think they will support Mr. Pitter's vision."
"What impact will this have on the school?" asked member Fatima Ennis-Grant. Young reminded her "this is a temporary situation."
"We want to keep this school vital. But let's start with survival," he said.
Stefanie Cervoni-Leng, the board's teacher rep, sobbed as she responded. "I work hard because of him and what he's done. I don't know what will happen without him," she said. "That's my honest answer. I don't know. He's what gives me my energy."
"My strong feeling is we should do whatever it takes to look after the welfare and future of the 300 children who are entrusted to us," said member Fred Anderson. "The state should be helping us, not be caustic. We took in a lot of kids that weren't wanted by other schools. It took us a long time and some left here as honor students.
"We're going to be cordial to the state, but ask them not to treat us less than any other school in the state. We have to stand up for our kids," he said. "We're the ones they look up to."
Parent rep Joaquina Borges King, an assistant Hamden town attorney until last November, said she supported Young's proposal.
"I really think it puts kids first. Parents were not saying we want you to fight for Mr. Pitter," she said of a meeting Tuesday with 80 to 90 parents who wanted to know what is going on with Pitter and the future of the school. "This school is a rarity. It's not cookie-cutter."
About a dozen parents attended last night's meeting. A mother said Pitter is a "man of his word that he wouldn't sacrifice the school for his betterment. I want the record to show I commend Mr. Pitter for his unselfishness."
Another parent asked if Young's proposal to create a new job for Pitter would satisfy the attorney general's demand, since Pitter would still be working at the school.
"We get unprecise information from the state," said Young. "Their language is not specific. They may find this is unacceptable."
"Let me say it this way. This school is not going to be closed down by the state. The community won't allow it," the chair said.
"Today I am having my breakdown," said Riley. "If they want to lynch Mr. Pitter … But they're not thinking about the kids."
Young said the state treats Highville unfairly. "We seem to be evaluated in a class by ourselves," he said. He said the school's budget is the smallest of all the charter schools in Connecticut. And Hamden is the least hospitable of the communities that have such schools.
He then took the vote.
Riley: "If we must." And the others all voted yes, too.
As they did at Tuesday's meeting, parents spoke about the emotional impact the investigation of Pitter has had on their kids -- particularly after seeing Attorney General Blumenthal interviewed on TV saying the director must be removed for lying about his education. The students are required to watch and read news every day.
Yvette Hedge's daughter has been a student at Highville since the day the school opened. She was in kindergarten. Now she's in seventh grade and Hedge, who also works at the school, said Pitter has been very instrumental in her daughter's development.
"That night we were sitting down and she broke down in tears," said Hedge, when her daughter saw Pitter on the news.
"I must tell you she's so emotionally close to Mr. Pitter and it is affecting her so much. I am requesting counseling," she said. Earlier in the meeting, the board voted to pay the Clifford Beers Guidance Clinic to work with children who are not only upset about the Pitter situation but also the death last year of teacher Leonie McKenzi.
'This time last year she couldn't teach anymore because of cancer," said a parent who asked not to be identified. "The kids haven't gotten over this yet. It's like we're in mourning all over again."
April 27, 2006
By Sharon Bass
They're growing increasingly upset and confused. The director of their children's school, Highville Mustard Seed, is being investigated by the state for financial and other improprieties, and on April 13 Attorney General Blumenthal issued a letter to the school board insisting on the immediate removal of director Lyndon Pitter for lying about having college degrees.
So for two and a half hours Tuesday evening, 80-90 parents gathered at the Leeder Hill school looking for answers to what's going on.
What if Pitter has to go? What will happen to the school? Where would my child go instead? Would someone else take over Mustard Seed?
"No one who saw these parents would shut this school down," said board chair Mitchell Young. "These parents are involved. They're very committed to the school. One parent said, 'You can't let the school close because there is no other school I would send my child to.' She said she'd have to quit her job and do home school."
"That was extremely eye-opening for me. It said volumes what the school had done," said state Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven) of the meeting in general. "The parents are extremely informed."
Walker said she went to the meeting because some of her constituents' kids go to Highville and asked her to step in.
"I've talked to Mitch and I've talked to Pitter and I wanted to hear what the parents had to say," she said. "I've been following this investigation. I just wanted to make sure the appropriate information was being shared with the parents."
Walker said she has only talked to Young and Pitter about the investigation. She said her bigger concern is the children's education.
"This to [parents] was a goldmine because their children were getting a wonderful education. Parents said their kids were coming from schools where they were labeled underachievers. One parent said her kid was labeled a dummy," said Walker.
"The concern of the parents is -- and this a very valid concern -- they want to make sure their kids have a place to go to school in September," she said. "The thing that really moved me was the number of parents who came to the meeting. If we can get that kind of participation at all the schools, we'd have better schools."
Young said he and three other board members gave the parents an update about the state investigation. Young has been critical of the way Blumenthal is handling it.
"They [parents] were really pissed that the state Department of Education called them an unruly and intimidating mob," he said. "I can tell you that. It's a strategy of [the state's]. But it's going to backfire on them. When you meet these parents it's hard to have that opinion. They're really pretty smart and well put together in many ways. They're articulate."
He said some parents said it would be "fine with them" if Pitter stepped down. Others, Young said, felt otherwise. But they were more focused on the fate of the school than its director.
"I think it would be a crazy idea to close a successful school and keep so many unsuccessful ones open," he said. "If there was a serious attempt to shut the school down, I think you would see not hundreds of people but more [oppose it.] Having a successful school is not an everyday thing in the minority community. We're hearing from clergy members because parishioners are talking about it."
Walker said she is going to advocate for the school, which she deems a success, among her legislative colleagues. But the success of the school and Pitter's alleged wrongdoings, she said, should be separate issues.
"I'm still trying to get all the pieces in from what I can gather. It's very concerning to me that the investigation was caused by people who were angry with Mr. Pitter and the school," said Walker. "I did read the forensic report. Then I talked to Mr. Pitter and Mitch [Young]." She said Pitter told her he wasn't receiving his salary when he used a school credit card to make thousands of dollars in personal purchases, which were itemized in the forensic report.
April 24, 2006
Highville Board Chair Questions AG's
Cites failure to investigate alleged 'extensive shredding' of financial documents
In an April 22nd press release to the media regarding Highville Mustard Seed Charter School, Attorney General Blumenthal said, "I will pursue the facts wherever they lead", he added, "I will not prejudge the results".
Highville Board Chair Mitchell Young responded by saying "We're very happy that Dick has decided to change his approach, in what already is an eight month long investigation".
Adding, "From the outset all we've asked for is an impartial investigation. Two weeks after the new governing board took control on September 6, 2005 we were informed that there was a "whistle-blower" complaint submitted to the Attorney General's office regarding financial impropriety against the school and Lyndon Pitter the Executive Director".
Citing the Connecticut's whistle-blower statute the Attorney General's office did not supply the details of any charges against the school or Pitter or who had made them
Four weeks after the new board was informed of the unsubstantiated allegations and eight months before any misstatements by Pitter, or the start of any investigation, the state demanded the founders of the school, Executive Director, Lyndon Pitter and associate director Nadine Pitter be "terminated" - within two weeks.
Highville's new board refused citing the need for "due process" and a thorough and impartial investigation.
Young explained among the first issues presented to the Board by Connecticut State Department of Education, chief auditor Raymond Inzero was a demand to justify Lyndon Pitter's purchase of an African American textbook series. The demand was made in person and on a list of issues that needed to be responded to immediately.
Shortly thereafter the new board informed Inzero that there were significant problems with the books and records left behind by the departing board and CFO and that the new board was still attempting to retrieve financial records removed from the building.
Highville's Board also informed Inzero that a new board member an attorney had interviewed employees that alleged a former employee had shred extensive amounts of financial documents.
"Clearly we were concerned about what documents were missing or destroyed and how it would effect our ability to obtain the truth about financial impropriety and by whom", Young said.
The new Board informed the state that among its first actions was the adoption of a new Conflict of Interest Policy that would eliminate the practice of board members being able to hire or contract school services with their own relatives.
On January 5, 2006 Highville contacted the Attorney General's office and provided the names of the former employee and the witnesses to the shredding of documents. Neither of the witnesses appears to have been contacted by the AG's office.
"The failure to investigate the potential theft and destruction of documents in a case regarding financial impropriety is unacceptable and we hope the Attorney General's new statement demonstrates the investigation will finally proceed in an impartial way", said Young.
"As important however, now for the whistle-blower investigation is the possibility that the whistle-blower and the alleged document shredder are one in the same, Young said. "If this is the case it might explain why the financial issues investigation has stalled after all this time, and why the state turned to these other charges to obtain the termination they sought last October", he added.
Highville Mustard Charter School Board is expected to meet on Thursday April 27, to respond to a call from Blumenthal to remove Pitter from the school until "the investigation is completed".
Young added. "we are hoping to have the meeting on Thursday but we still have not received the transcript from Mr. Pitter's interview where the alleged misstatements from made so it may have to be postponed".
April 18, 2006
By Sharon Bass
Mitchell Young said he doesn't care if Lyndon Pitter, director of the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School, has no college education. Furthermore, the Highville board chair said he wants a transcript of the deposition Pitter gave to the attorney general, which led the state to demand last week that Pitter be immediately removed. He was caught lying about having college degrees.
The state has been investigating Pitter and his wife, Nadine Pitter, associate director of the Leeder Hill school, since last October for financial wrongdoings and other acts of dishonesty. Attorney General Dick Blumenthal said the inquiry should conclude in a month or two.
Young said he knew nothing about Pitter's education. "I think I don't really know. We never talked about it. I never really asked him," he said. "I told the state's auditor that we had no interest in Pitter's educational background. He runs the [Highville] corporation but we have two -- not just one but two -- certified principals in the school. Does he need a college education to raise funds? Does he need a college education to inspire young people?"
At the deposition, Pitter's and the board's lawyers were present and dispute parts of the AG's April 13 letter that was sent to the board insisting Pitter be removed immediately, said Young.
"We can't rely on this letter. We have to rely on all the information that is available," he said. "We will be asking for transcripts of the meeting. Lyndon had a lawyer there and the board sent its attorney there to understand what was going on."
Asked if he distrusts Blumenthal (state Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg also signed the letter), Young said, "Let's just say we need to get a copy of the transcript to know what happened."
As an example, he said he questions the validity of the follow statement from Blumenthal's letter: "We asked Pitter what his response would be if we told him that we had contacted the University of the West Indies and that they had no record of his having received any degrees. He stood by his earlier statements and again stated that he had both degrees."
"That's what the letter says what happened at the meeting," said Young. "It would be crazy to rely on somebody's opinion about what happened. One thing that bothers me a lot is Dick's comments in the media. I believe he has done more harm for the educational opportunities for minorities of anyone ever in Connecticut."
The chair said since the school is closed for spring break until April 24, the board has not had a chance to discuss removing Pitter. "We have to contact the board members, some of whom are away. We have to create an agenda," he said. "We can't do what we can't do. In order to have a legal meeting we have to post notice."
Blumenthal did not return a message seeking comment.
Dacia Toll is co-founder of the Amistad Academy, a model charter school in New Haven, which is being replicated many times over in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"It's an unfortunate situation and I'm not familiar with enough of the specifics to comment," she said last Saturday from La Guardia Airport. "I think it's important when looking at any situation not to paint with too broad with a brush. Connecticut's charter schools are overwhelmingly successful. They're among the most successful charter schools in the country."
She said she knows nothing about Highville Mustard Seed.
"I kept meaning to go and visit but I never did," Toll said.
April 14, 2006
By Sharon Bass
After the state ordered the Highville Charter School board to remove its director for lying about having college degrees, chair Mitchell Young still maintained Lyndon Pitter has done no wrong.
Since last October, the state education department has been investigating Pitter and his wife, Nadine Pitter, Highville Mustard Seed's assistant director, for financial wrongdoings. In mid-November, the Attorney General's Office and state auditors joined the inquiry. Among other things, the Pitters have been accused by former employees and board members of using the school's credit cards for personal items, like clothing and vacations, and taking salary advances and not repaying them. The school is housed in an industrial building at 130 Leeder Hill Drive.
Yesterday, Attorney General Dick Blumenthal sent a letter to Bridgeport lawyer Donald Houston, who's representing the charter school board, demanding that Lyndon Pitter be removed immediately for "providing the board and our offices with false documents and diplomas misrepresenting his educational background. These serious and distressing falsehoods by Mr. Pitter, attempting to mislead the board and state officials, were discovered by us yesterday during his sworn testimony. We seek his immediate removal. His actions may constitute grounds for a criminal investigation as well."
"This is what I love about Connecticut today. You accuse a person of stealing and when the evidence doesn't stand up you can trade in your charges for something like resume padding to get your results," said Young. In previous interviews with the HDN, he insisted that the reason the investigation is taking so long is because the state doesn't have any real evidence against Pitter.
The chair said the board will meet after school vacation to "review the situation." Young is the publisher of BusinessNewHaven and other publications.
Blumenthal made it clear the inquiry is not over. "The investigation is active and ongoing concerning possible financial improprieties and mismanagement," he said. Pitter is to stay away from the school "at least while the investigation is going on." Blumenthal said it will conclude "as soon as possible."
The agreement reached last fall between the state and the school board called for both Pitters to take leaves during the investigation. However, they returned to their jobs early last month, without informing the state. It is unclear if Nadine Pitter is allowed in the school.
"We asked that he be removed. We haven't made a demand about her," said Blumenthal. He said he wasn't sure if the board has told Lyndon Pitter to leave. "There's been no response to our letter yet," he said last night.
Several unsuccessful attempts were made to reach Pitter for comment. Messages were left for him at the school and his Wallingford home.
April 13, 2006
Donald F. Houston, Esq.
RE: Highville Mustard Seed Charter School Investigation
Dear Attorney Houston:
We write to demand the board of directors of Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation and Charter School in Hamden ("Highville Charter School" or "School") immediately remove Lyndon Pitter from his duties at Highville Mustard Seed Charter School for providing the board and our offices with false documents and diplomas misrepresenting his educational background. These serious and distressing falsehoods by Mr. Pitter, attempting to mislead the board and state officials, were discovered by us yesterday during his sworn testimony. We seek his immediate removal. His actions may constitute grounds for a criminal investigation as well.
Our investigations began in October, 2005 as a result of information we received that Lyndon Pitter, Director of the School, and his wife Nadine Pitter, the Associate Director, had misappropriated state funds for their own personal use and had engaged in other mismanagement. Commissioner Sternberg of the State Department of Education in October, 2005, required the Highville Charter School to submit to an independent, limited scope forensic audit. In parallel with the independent forensic review, the Office of the Attorney General, the Auditors of Public Accounts and the State Department of Education Office of Internal Audit commenced an intensive coordinated investigation of the allegations of mismanagement and financial irregularities at the School.
While the forensic audit and our investigations were being conducted, as further required by Commissioner Sternberg, the School's board of directors placed Lyndon Pitter and Nadine Pitter on paid administrative leave beginning November 14, 2005.
On March 6, 2006, without consulting Commissioner Sternberg prior to doing so, the Highville Charter School board of directors voted to reinstate both Lyndon Pitter and his wife, Nadine Pitter, following release of the results of the independent, limited scope forensic audit. The board's reinstatement of the Pitters at that time raised deep and serious concerns because our offices' active and aggressive investigation of this matter was still continuing.
As part of the whistleblower investigation, the Office of the Attorney General subpoenaed Lyndon Pitter for testimony and to produce documents. In response to the subpoena for documents, Pitter provided a resume stating that he had earned both a Bachelor of Science Degree in Sociology and a Master of Science degree in Economics from the University of the West Indies. We contacted the University of the West Indies to confirm whether Lyndon Pitter indeed did hold his Bachelor's and Master's degrees from the University. Rather than confirmation, the Assistant Registrar from the University of West Indies on March 7, 2006, wrote: "No record of Lyndon Dean Pitter in the database at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies. I have checked with my counterpart at the University's Campuses in Barbados and in Trinidad and the same response becomes applicable. The copies of degree certificates presented by Mr. Pitter as being awarded by this University cannot be verified as authentic."
Mr. Pitter's whistleblower examination took place yesterday under oath. Pitter expressly testified that he had earned a Bachelor's degree and a Master's degree from the University of the West Indies. He referred us to the resume and the diplomas that he provided in response to our subpoena . We asked Pitter what his response would be if we told him that we had contacted the University of the West Indies and that they had no record of his having received any degrees. He stood by his earlier statements and again stated that he had both degrees.
During a break in the examination, Mr. Pitter's attorney approached us and advised that Mr. Pitter wanted to correct the record regarding his degrees. We introduced into evidence the written confirmation from the University of the West Indies stating that the University Registrar had no record of Pitter having received any degrees. At that point, we asked whether Mr. Pitter wished to supplement, correct or amend any of his prior answers in light of this letter. Pitter responded that he wished now to withdraw his earlier statements that he had either a Bachelor's or a Master's degree from the University of the West Indies. His attorney requested, however, that we defer further examination on this issue. We agreed to defer further examination on this issue to accommodate the request by Mr. Pitter's attorney.
As you know, Mr. Pitter provided copies both of his resume and the falsified diplomas to Mitchell Young, Chair of the Highville Charter School board, under cover letter dated January 31, 2006, from Pitter's attorney, John Gesmonde. Pitter provided these documents to Mr. Young as evidence for the independent forensic audit conducted as required by the State Department of Education.
In light of the facts and circumstances that we are herein conveying to you -- namely, the seriousness of the false statements that Lyndon Pitter made under oath and the falsified resume and diplomas that Pitter produced under oath and in the Department's forensic audit -- we demand that you take swift and immediate action to remove Lyndon Pitter as Executive Director of the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School during the remainder of our investigation.
The Highville Charter School board of directors has pledged verbally and in writing to cooperate fully with our investigation. In light of these prior expressions of cooperation, and based on the seriousness of the misrepresentations and the falsifications by Mr. Pitter of his educational credentials, we expect that you will work urgently and expeditiously to remove Mr. Pitter from the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School. Failure to take immediate action to remove Mr. Pitter from the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School can result in the probation or revocation of the school's charter by the State Department of Education because of the board's failure to properly oversee the administration of the school.
Very truly yours,
Dr. Betty J. Sternberg
cc: Mitchell Young, Chair, Highville Mustard Seed Charter School Board of Directors
November 18, 2005
Three state offices, including the Attorney General's, are now probing Highville charter school
By Sharon Bass
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has just stepped into the investigation of Hamden's Highville Mustard Seed Charter School. So has the state Auditors of Public Accounts. And the state Department of Education has been investigating the school for weeks.
The idea, said Karen Flanagan, an attorney for the ed department, is "for all three entities to work together rather than do three separate investigations."
She called the investigation "huge" and unusual.
"There hasn't been as huge an investigation since Village Academy. These are pretty serious allegations. They warrant a serious looking in to," Flanagan said. "I think it will take at least a month. It's a very, very detailed audit."
The state probe is focused on allegations that Highville's executive director, Lyndon Pitter, and his wife, Nadine Pitter, the associate director, used the school's credit card and other funds for personal expenses, and took advances on their salaries they did not repay. It's also investigating whether Nadine Pitter was inappropriately paid her full salary while going to nursing school. The school is located in an industrial building at 130 Leeder Hill Drive
Yesterday, Raymond Inzero Sr., the education department's chief auditor, sent a letter to both the Attorney General's Office and the Auditors of Public Accounts. His letter said his department "has initiated an investigation of allegations of financial irregularities involving Highville. The investigation includes reviewing allegations contained in a complaint filed with the Department of Education by a former employee of the school as well as an anonymous whistleblower complaint which was forwarded to my attention by the Office of the Attorney General on Oct. 7, 2005."
In response, Blumenthal's office issued a press release yesterday saying his "office and the state auditors will investigate alleged financial irregularities and alleged diversion of state funds at the state-financed Highville Mustard Seed Charter School in Hamden.
"My office and the auditors will fully and fairly investigate these allegations," Blumenthal was quoted in the release. "We will vigorously protect the public interest and will take any legal action warranted by the evidence. Assuring that state education funds are properly spent is vital to the continuing success of Connecticut's charter school program."
When contacted by the HDN, Blumenthal's office declined further comment.
We're on Top of It
Mitchell Young, the new chair of the Highville school board, said he is speaking to the media in lieu of executive director Pitter.
In early September 2005, six of the seven board members -- including Chair Berita Rowe-Lewis, also Hamden's 3rd District councilwoman -- suddenly resigned saying they could no longer serve in light of financial and management problems at Highville. Chief Financial Officer Dezroy Stewart also quit with similar accusations.
"I'm happy that the state is taking this very seriously, because it is serious," said Stewart, who initiated the complaint.
The Pitters, meanwhile, went on paid leaves of absence last week, while the state does what's called a "forensic audit," which Flanagan described as "very detailed." She said the choice was to either put the school on probation or have the Pitters leave.
"Our reaction (to the three-way state investigation) is two things," Young said in a telephone interview last night. "One, we're concerned that this will distract from us being able to manage the school. It's one more thing we have to worry about. The other thing is we're happy we have the tool of the Attorney General to make people provide information that wouldn't provide it to us."
Young said the school is taking action on its own accord, not because the state is mandating it. "We immediately started reviewing financial records," he said. "We immediately met and changed the governance policy. We adopted a new conflict-of-interest policy. If you're a board member your relative can't be employed at the school."
Young claims the Pitters are being unfairly accused, although he conceded that it is yet to be seen if they were involved in financial wrongdoings.
"The impression has been that the credit-card spending was a contemporary event. It did not just happen. The credit card was removed from the corporation in the end of 1999 or beginning of 2000," the chair said. "There were some (credit-card) charges that we would determine that would likely be personal. However there were payments by Mr. Pitter. That's what we're auditing." Young said he's unsure if Pitter repaid all the personal charges.
He also said Pitter had gotten salary advances that "may not have been paid back. That's what we're auditing. There are other advances (Pitter received) that were supposed to go to school expenses. In some cases board members signed the check. In other cases, we don't know." And there are questionable travel expenses Pitter charged to the school, he said. It's unclear if any of the trips were personal.
Very Serious Allegations
Flanagan said the state's 14 charter schools are routinely reviewed every five years in order to have their charter renewed. Young and Pitter have called the current investigation a review. Flanagan said Highville is not due a routine review for another year or two. Again she said "serious allegations" have been made about school finances, and a full-fledged investigation is being conducted.
Young questioned Flanagan's stance. Asked if he thought she was lying, he said, "I don't think Karen would lie, but they do have their own personal agenda. We've had trouble getting the (department of ed) to be focused on facts and not on speculation."
Flanagan said, "The department got a complaint and we contacted the Highville board, that's who our formal relation is with -- the board." Since there is also a whistleblower's complaint, the AG's office got notice. However, it wasn't until yesterday that Blumenthal decided to be a part of the investigation.
In state auditor's Inzero's letter to the AG's office yesterday he wrote: "As this matter also involves a whistleblower complaint I am, as requested, providing your offices with the current status of our investigation. In this regard the following actions have been taken: 1. An independent CPA firm has been hired by the school to conduct a limited scope forensic audit, under the direction of OIA (Office of Internal Audit, which is within the Department of Education) of certain financial issues. 2. The OIA is examining other financial and management issues including teacher certification, student testing, etc. 3. The executive director and associate director (husband and wife) of the school have been placed on administration leave with pay pending the results of the investigation and audit."
St. Ann's v. Lyndon Pitter
Flanagan said she knew of another case against Pitter. He was sued in New Haven Superior Court by St. Ann's Church at 930 Dixwell Ave. in Hamden. The civil case never made it to the courtroom. It was withdrawn on July 23, 2002, according to a state document. The court records, she said, had been destroyed, which is not unusual after a case is closed.
So it is unclear what the lawsuit was about since there is no paper trail. But Young said it had nothing to do with money.
"As far as the St. Ann's thing goes I don't have any knowledge on that I will share with you. It is a homeless shelter. I think (Lyndon Pitter) lived there," said Young, however he also said he didn't think Pitter was homeless. He just lived there because he had no other home. This was in the mid 1990s, Young said.
He said while Pitter was living at the shelter, he was applying for American citizenship. He had just come to Connecticut from his native Jamaica. "I hope they look into St. Ann's. And you can put that into an investigation," he said.
A woman who answered the phone at St. Ann's said she is "not allowed to even mention Pitter's name," let alone discuss the lawsuit.
Back to School
Regarding the claim that Nadine Pitter was improperly paid while attending nursing school, her husband would not say whether the Highville board approved this action (see "Dear Mustard Seed, I Quit," right below).
But Young said the board didn't. "They did not outline the terms (of her leave). You have to remember the school is open from 7 o'clock in the morning to 7 o'clock at night."
Lyndon Pitter had said his wife was granted a leave of absence from the Highville board to take an "accelerated nursing program" at Naugatuck Community College. Young said she also continued to work at the school during some of the 12 hours it is open.
Rowe-Lewis and two other former board members were contacted by the HDN. Rowe-Lewis and Quinnipiac professor Ronald McMullen did not want to comment. And Wendy Clarke could not be reached.
"We're just monitoring (the whole situation) closely," said Henry Garcia, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "Our department's auditors have been on top of this."
November 16, 2005
Letters of resignation from the Highville Charter School board
By Sharon Bass
While the state sifts through allegations of financial wrongdoings at Hamden's only public charter school, letters from six board members who resigned -- and the CFO -- have hit the HDN desk
In HDN's Nov. 10, 2005, story "Bad Seed?" -- about the ongoing state investigation of Highville Mustard Seed Charter School -- former Chief Financial Officer of the school, Dezroy Stewart, said six board members quit. Executive Director Lyndon Pitter said just four had.
"I think when someone says six of seven board members have resigned they want to create the perception that something is wrong," Pitter was quoted in the Nov. 10 article.
Hamden's 3rd District Councilwoman Berita Rowe-Lewis was chair of the board and one of the six who wrote letters of resignation. Asked for comment, Rowe said she wanted to hold off until the state investigation is completed.
According to an anonymous source very close to the scene, the situation at Highville became heated when an independent audit of the school's books revealed that Pitter's wife, Nadine Pitter, who is also Highville's associate director, was receiving her full salary while attending nursing school. There are also allegations that the Pitters used the school's credit card on personal items, like clothes and luggage. Both Pitters went on paid leave last week per state request.
Lyndon Pitter said his wife graduated from the nursing school at Naugatuck Valley Community College sometime last summer, and was unsure when she started. "To be honest, I'm not familiar with the dates," he said.
"This is part of the (state) review that's taking place. I'm not going to comment on that," said Pitter. Asked if his wife was a full-time student he said, "I'm not going to discuss the contents of that." Asked if she was paid while at school, he said, "I'm sure all the schools in Hamden, New Haven give staff sabbaticals to do training and research."
And asked if the Highville school board approved Nadine Pitter to receive her full salary while attending school, Pitter said, "Ask the state for a copy of my response to the audit findings." He said he believes he wrote the response last June.
Five board members, including Rowe, turned in letters of resignation in early September of this year. Another member penned her letter on June 15, 2005. In addition, Stewart sent Rowe a letter on Sept. 6, 2005, announcing his resignation. That makes seven letters in all.
Lyndon Pitter, explaining why he had earlier stated only four members had quit, said one of them -- Quinnipiac University professor Ronald McMullen -- wasn't really on the board. "How can someone resign from something when he's been absent from meetings for three years?" Pitter said. "Writing a letter doesn't mean to me anything."
"That's absolutely untrue," said Stewart. He said he saw McMullen at "at least" three meetings in 2005.
Pitter also said former board member Eugennie Pitter "was given misinformation and my understanding is she has submitted a letter to the state department withdrawing that letter. As far as I understand she is a board member." Pitter said he and Eugennie are not related.
The letters are reprinted below in their entirety, to avoid any perception of taking comments out of context.
Letter No. 1
September 1, 2005
This is to tender my resignation from the Board of Directors of the Highville Mustard Seed Community Development Corporation, effective immediately. The members of the board have been wonderful people to work with and all have always seemed as committed as I to the original dreams and goals of the organization.
My reasons for resigning are two. First, my duties as Department Chair at the University, in addition to my teaching load there, are requiring much more of my time and energies and leave me little or no time to devote to the work of the Board. This can readily be seen in my absences from Board meetings over the past school year due to recurring namely, the increasingly questionable and, to me, unacceptable management behavior of the Executive Director of the Corporation, Lyndon Pitter. Current realities make it clear that even had I the time, there is little I can contribute to the health and growth of the HMSCDC.
I shall continue to be ready to help the Corporation when I can with advice, volunteer assistance from my students and with access to appropriate resources from the University as available and asked for by Highville as I have in the past. I regret, however, that that help will not be in the form of my membership on the Board. Thank you for allowing me to serve with you these past years and know that I wish only success for the Highville Mustard Seed Community Development Corporation.
Letter No. 2
September 1, 2005
Dear Ms. Rowe:
With this letter I ask that you accept my resignation as the Corporate Secretary for the Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation, effective immediately.
Due to increasing professional, academic, and family obligations, I will no longer be able to commit the time and effort necessary to remain an effective board member. My time serving the board has been a rewarding experience in which I have learned a great deal.
It is my hope that the board will continue to grow and serve the better interest of Highville Mustard Seed School and the greater community. Best wishes to you all.
Letter No. 3
September 2, 2005
Re: Highville Mustard Seed Charter School
Dear Mrs. Lewis:
As mentioned last evening, I regret to inform you that I am immediately resigning from the Board of the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School. The outcome of last evening's Board meeting and the Executive Director's orchestration of the angry mob of parents that he misled leaves me with no alternative. Unfortunately, with my and the other Board members (sic) resignation, Mr. Pitter is left with the false idea that he was effective in redirecting the governance of the school. However, he remains accountable only to himself. I find it extremely disconcerting that Mr. Pitter sent a post board meeting letter to parents essentially congratulating them for this boisterous and threatening behavior and the resulting ousting of the Board.
I am thankful that you adhered to the State's advice in commissioning the Brody, Weiser Burns (BWB) report as two independent parties (the auditor and BWB) have lent some validity to the concerns we raised around Mr. Pitter's role as Executive Director of the school. Further this exercise has allowed us to put in place a number of procedures and policies, albeit policies he continues to ignore. I implore you to forward all new policies, the corrective action plan and the BWB report to the new Board he is establishing so that no one can pledge ignorance. Also, in the transition, it is essential that Mr. Pitter's new Board be well aware of the outstanding dollar obligations Mr. Pitter has to the Charter School that were recorded by the Financial Officer. Those matters are legitimate and should not be swept under the rug regardless of how he defines governance in the reconstitution of the school board.
September 1, 2005 was indeed a sad day for the Charter School movement. It hurts me to the core that Board members were maligned in our effort to operate Highville at some acceptable standard. It is also saddening that the majority of parents who attended last night's meeting do not have a higher expectation for this phenomenal initiative that results in educational options for the (sic) some of the most disenfranchised children in new (sic) Haven and Southern Hamden.
I thank you for the opportunity to serve on the Highville Board, and although you may be disappointed in my decision, this protracted conflict about Mr. Pitter's accountability has taken its toll. I wish you all the best and I think that I can speak for all the members, when I say that your attitude towards resolution inspired optimism right to the very end.
Letter No. 4
September 2, 2005
Dear Ms. Rowe:
With great reluctance I am submitting my resignation effective immediately.
My association with Highville Mustard Seed Charter School has been a pleasant one, and I will miss the friendship here. However under the present circumstances it is impossible for me to continue.
I appreciate your understanding of my decision to leave Highville.
Letter No. 5
September 7, 2005
I have spent six rewarding years with Highville Mustard Seed Charter School and Development Corporation Board of Directors in which I have certainly learned and grown a great deal. I believe that I have been able to contribute to a variety of situations and I appreciate the opportunity the corporation has given me. It is truly with much regret that I must extend my letter of resignation effective immediately.
Over the past months issues of gross financial irresponsibility, lack of staff supervision and governance have been matters of great distress to me. With no resolve in sight and your continued abuse of your position, also your attempt to wrestle control of the school from the board after the (BWB) report. It is now apparent that the organization structure is in need of serious review by the state Department of Education.
I would urge the State Department of Education to take a closer look at the three areas mentioned above and hold all individuals responsible to the highest extent of the law. Highville students want more, deserve more and should be given more educational benefits.
I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the parents and entire staff for their support, understanding, patience and corperation (sic) for myself and the entire board over these trying years. To my Board thank you it was great working with you all.
Letter No. 6
June 15, 2005
Dear Sir, Madam,
It is with deep regret that I submit my resignation effective August 31st 2005. It has been a pleasure serving on the board as a member. This is a personal matter as I do want to spend more quality time with my father. In doing so, I will have to be out of the country for long periods of time and this would not be in the best interest of the school.
I wish for everyone continued success.
Letter No. 7
September 6, 2005
Dear Board Chair:
This letter serves as my formal notice that I am resigning from my position, as Chief Financial Officer, at Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation and Charter School.
This resignation is to take effect immediately.
I regret taking such a drastic action but the current situation leaves me no alternative. Owing to the blatant and recurring acts of financial impropriety by the Executive Director and the Associate Director I no longer feel confident that I can protect the financial interest of Highville Mustard Seed Development Corporation and Charter School.
I want to thank you, the entire Board of Directors and all the members of staff for the trust you placed in me and for giving me the privilege to serve you all. Thank you.
November 10, 2005
By Sharon Bass
One side calls it a review. The other, a serious investigation prompted by a serious complaint. Semantics aside, there's apparently something fishy about how money has been handled at the Highville Mustard Seed Charter School at 130 Leeder Hill Drive -- and the state is digging in.
Meanwhile, the chief financial officer and more than half the school board have resigned. And the executive director and his wife, who is the associate director, have just taken paid leaves of absence.
"There is an investigation going on right now, but that is all I can tell you," said Henry Garcia, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "There are funding issues involved. We're going through records."
That's the official word.
But talk to Highville's executive director, Lyndon Pitter, or new chairman of the board Mitchell Young, and you'll get the impression there's just a voluntary -- almost routine -- review going on. In fact, a letter sent yesterday to parents/guardians of students says just that:
"Although Highville's finances have been subject to an independent annual audit for the past eight years, Highville's current Board has agreed with the State Department of Education to conduct a more comprehensive audit to review in greater detail expenditures, compensation and contracts of the school …" It is signed by Pitter and Young, who is also the publisher of Business New Haven, a bimonthly newspaper.
Young said the state contacted Highville about a month ago because it got a complaint from former CFO Dezroy Stewart. "We don't want any questions of impropriety hanging over the school," said Young. "We need to see if there's anything we need to be concerned about."
Charters, like Highville, are public schools but are separate from their local school systems and receive no local funding. They get money from the state and federal government, grants and fund-raisers. They are typically located in urban areas and serve minority students. Highville's student population is 90 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic and 4 percent white. Its annual operating budget is $2.7 million.
In early September, Stewart and either four or six (depending on whom you ask) of the seven board members, including the chair, quit, claiming Pitter and his wife, Nadine Pitter, Highville's associate director and school nurse, had been using school funds for personal expenses.
"Right now all I can tell you is that six of the seven members of the board resigned," said Stewart in a phone interview from his Bridgeport home. "It's really because of the blatant and recurring financial improprieties of the executive director and his wife. The state asked them to take a leave of absence."
Pitter said he and his wife "agreed with the state to take a leave of absence. I believe that's the most prudent thing at this time. I do not want my presence in any way to influence the outcome of the review." He said they began their leaves yesterday.
"It's probably a good thing because I haven't taken a leave in a long time. I work long hours, 12 hours a day and seven days a week," said Pitter from his Wallingford residence.
"Lyndon had been stealing from the school to buy Armani suits for over $3,000 and his wife (was buying) luggage sets and scarves for over $2,000. (They were) using the school credit card on personal items, over $15,000 a month," said Stewart, who started working at the charter school in 1999, the year after it opened. He said six board members, including the chair, also quit, but Pitter "got two to come back on."
Pitter said that is not true. "I think when someone says six of seven board members have resigned they want to create the perception that something is wrong. Board members were illegally removed. Illegal meetings were conducted by the former board." He said four resigned. The former chair was Hamden's 3rd District Councilwoman Berita Rowe, who could not be reached for comment.
Asked if he was stealing from the school, Pitter said, "I am not going to comment on the allegation. I will allow the investigation to do that. To reveal the truth."
The Last Straw
Chair Young said the situation came to a head on Aug. 31, during a board meeting.
"What we know to be the case is that on Aug. 31 there was a board meeting (where) a couple hundred parents and teachers and some community people as well had questions for the board regarding finances at the school, how the school is doing and whether there was an interest to terminate Lyndon Pitter," Young said. "The board, I guess, didn't really satisfy the parents with their answers."
According to Young, parents said they had no confidence in the board and four resigned. "It wasn't a lynch mob or anything. It was a meeting. At the end of that meeting, they resigned," he said. "The board is not accountable to students, state or community."
After CFO Stewart quit, Young said accountant Lynne Durand was hired as a replacement. "We immediately found there were financial records missing. We could not get into some of our accounts" because they didn't have the passwords, the chair said. He said he contacted Stewart, but he would not cooperate.
Stewart said that allegation is "totally untrue. Not one of the financial records had a password." He said the records were printed out every year. "Mr. Pitter called me one night after 10 on Sept. 12 or 13. I did not return his call. I got a call from Mitch Young within 48 hours."
Stewart said he told Young he gave all his keys to former Chair Rowe.
He's Her Cousin
"Did Mr. Stewart tell you that he is my wife's first cousin?" asked Pitter. When told no, he said it is important to disclose such information, which could bias one's opinion.
"One of things I've learned from this whole process is how people can take things out of context and spin it to their own agenda. I believe in the school. I believe in the mission of the school. Everything I've done since 1998 is not about me. It's about the kids," said Pitter. "If this review is a way to restore integrity in the school, then so be it."
"The board's not trying to hide anything," added Mitchell. "We're taking it all very seriously. But some people are trying to make this into the scandal of the century."
In 1998, the New Haven Advocate named Pitter the "best suburban activist." He was also a lay administrator for St. Ann's Church in Hamden.
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