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The Weems Way 

A charter school collapses amid a hail of sibling battles and unpaid bills

A regular week at the Weems School was a minefield of surprises for staff and students alike.

For students, that was a blast: The lunch menus were constantly changing, any given day could yield an unannounced field trip, and there was always the possibility you'd show up and find the doors locked and lights out.

For teachers, that wasn't so fun. Bill collectors were clogging up the phone lines, required textbooks weren't on the shelves, paychecks were late, and regular funds from the state got straw-sucked down a gaping black hole. The whole operation, it seemed, was held together by the thinnest strands of authority.

Such was life at the Tremont charter, which was christened in 2005 and ran aground four years later. Behind the wheel was Ruby Weems, the Hummer-driving superintendent with a spotty background in education. Together with her identical twin sister Rory, Weems ran an operation that even her most favorable critics call sloppy. Those who were bilked by the school and left to clean up the mess are less charitable.

The school lasted as long as it did thanks to Weems' stable of rookie teachers, most of them just a year or two free from college. Today, more than a year after the school was shut down, a number of those teachers say they still haven't been fully paid for their work. Two have filed a lawsuit against the school's sponsor, Cincinnati-based Educational Resource Consultants of Ohio (ERCO). The teachers say ERCO should have stepped in before Weems' mess got out of hand.

"These teachers worked so hard to keep the school open under difficult circumstances," says Jeffrey Crossman, the teachers' attorney. "The law requires that employers pay their employees." In light of the suit, the teachers declined to comment for this story.

Multiple efforts to contact Ruby Weems were unsuccessful. But according to court documents and former employees who declined to speak on the record, she wasn't exactly one of the charter movement's Supermen.

For one, Weems wasn't an educator: Former teachers say she claimed to have teaching experience, but that her background was mainly in law. (The Ohio State Supreme Court's official lawyer directory has no mention of her, however.) As the top dog of her own school, Weems was reportedly aloof and distant from other administrators, prone to brushing off bills and phone calls.

Not surprisingly, the books were bad from day one. According to a state audit, the Weems school provided few or no financial records to substantiate its expenditures in its first year. The audit lists multiple occasions where Weems cut checks up to $30,000, but failed to properly document where the money went. State auditors threw up their hands, refusing to even provide an official opinion on the books.

Sister Act

On the state's radar for academic watch from the outset, the school treaded water until 2007, when the Weems sisters became embroiled in a legal battle. The mudslinging that fills their court documents casts more light on the day-to-day circus.

Rory Weems, the school's chief financial officer at the time, alleged that Ruby was blocking her access to the financial records. Tension came to a head on the first day of the school year, when Ruby tossed Rory from the campus — a move that reflected Ruby's "increased desire to convert school funds to her own personal use," Rory claimed. (Efforts to contact Rory Weems were unsuccessful.)

More strangeness ensued in the weeks that followed. Rory Weems found her office had been ransacked for material related to the suit. Ruby shut down the school for three days in order to duck an order to appear in court. She hauled students off on impromptu field trips to the zoo and a local fair without telling parents or teachers beforehand. She also locked all employees out of the administrative office.

By October of that year, an agreement was ironed out: Rory would return to the school as chief of non-academic affairs. Less than a month later, however, she refiled her suit, claiming her sister had stripped her of those responsibilities too. Two bus drivers who testified against Ruby were fired in apparent retaliation.

Documents included in the case file claim the school was $300,000 in the red and fielding constant calls from jilted vendors and hungry creditors. The paperwork also alleges that Ruby defied the school's charter by stocking the board with family and friends — including her stepmother, cousin, pastor, and best friend — in order to keep her lock on the operation.

Looking the Other Way

ERCO head J. Leonard Harding claims the suit between the sisters was a personal matter and that his group was not involved. The event, he admits, did signal the downfall of the Weems School.

But the sponsor may have been closer to the action than Harding suggests. ERCO's own attorney represented Ruby Weems against her sister, making it likely that she heard accusations about Ruby's conflicts of interest and erratic behavior long before ERCO acted on it. The school's contract also lists one of the sponsor's obligations as "intervening as the sponsor deems necessary in the school's operation to correct problems with overall performance."

When Rory Weems left in 2007, the school flipped through new treasurers like a deck of cards, according to Harding. "[Ruby] was being very guarded in the information that she was giving her treasurers," he explains.

Unpaid bills were also mounting. In the 2007-'08 school year, Weems contracted with Something New Catering to handle daily breakfast and lunch for the school. Janice Poole, the outfit's owner, remembers a continuous stream of excuses.

"I kept trying to give them another chance, because I really wanted to stick with the school for the kids," she explains. Weems ran up a $12,000 tab that still hasn't been paid.

Later, Weems contracted with Tremont pizza-shop owner Mike Pfaff, but he never saw payment either. Pfaff says he is owed $1,000. After being contacted by the pizza shop's corporate office, Weems claimed in an email that the school's account had been "fraudulently tapped" and frozen by the bank.

By spring '09 — almost two years after Ruby's battle with Rory — ERCO decided to halt the Weems School. Former teachers say Weems didn't tell the staff what was happening. Instead, she filed a lawsuit claiming that ERCO was trying to boot her illegally. Around that time, Weems issued checks to her employees. According to the teachers' attorney, they bounced.

What Weems didn't do was reveal their fate: Teachers say they learned their school was closing in August — just weeks before they expected to return for a new year.

Harding defends ERCO's decision to do nothing for so long. School finances were a catastrophe, he says, but the board — not the sponsor — was responsible for putting the reins on the superintendent. When it became apparent Weems was controlling the board, ERCO stepped in. "The board is who let me down," he says, adding that because his group is in Cincinnati, he had no idea the board was filled with Ruby's pals.

ERCO initially maintained that employees had been paid. But questions arose about who exactly should be paid what. The school board, after all, never provided ERCO with employee contracts.

The confusion is indicative of the entire clean-up; the school's finances are so pretzel-twisted that a state auditor is still trying to sort through the mess. (A representative from the auditor's office declined to comment.) However, in a November letter to the teachers' attorney, ERCO admits that the check registers show the payments bounced.

"That employees were not paid in full is undisputed. The payroll company should not have issued checks when there was no money in the Weems account," ERCO's attorney wrote. "Had Ms. Weems cooperated in the closure process, this would not have occurred."

One Bad Apple

A few strands of information have been pieced together. As ERCO and Weems were duking it out in June 2009, the state dropped a check for $79,137 into the school's Fifth Third Bank account. ERCO told the state to stop payment. But by then, Weems had cut nearly 30 checks totaling $38,000. The payments were made mostly to employees, except for the fattest three: $8,592 to Ruby Weems, $3,000 to her sister, and $5,000 to the lawyer representing Weems in her suit against ERCO.

Crossman, the teachers' attorney, points out that ERCO had the muscle to step in earlier and clean house, and claims that the sponsor is liable for the pay teachers haven't received.

"We did what we had to do by law," Harding says. "We tried to move as quickly as we could, but there were roadblocks put before us," he adds, referring to Weems' lawsuit. The sponsor characterizes Weems as the lone bad apple in ERCO's stock; of the 23 schools it sponsors, all but one are showing "continuous improvement." A new ERCO school now sits in the old Weems location.

Ruby Weems, meanwhile, remains elusive. Since the closing of her school, she has told former employees that she is training new principals for the Cleveland public schools — a claim the district has not confirmed. (A written records request by Scene was met with no reponse.)

But the real mystery hanging over the Weems fiasco: Why did the Weems School money disappear in the first place, and where did it all go?

"Good question," says Harding. "That's what we wanted to know."

Send feedback to kswenson@clevescene.com.

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