Bad Apples

When a disgraced Westlake High School principal resurfaced at a charter school, he revealed an education experiment gone awry.

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Last year, creditors began hounding Glenn Rondo, a desk clerk at a downtown Columbus hotel. Rondo didn't understand the attention; he paid his bills. Finally, a debt collector asked if he was aware of a Dale Diddle.

The name was barely familiar. The Holiday Inn where Rondo works once employed a myopic shuttle driver named Dale Diddle. Rondo remembers a guy in his 40s, craning forward in the driver's seat to see better. On breaks, he held the newspaper a few inches from his face. "I felt sorry for him," Rondo says.

The once-pitiable co-worker is today accused of opening a checking account in Rondo's name. Columbus police say Diddle's handwriting matches the handwriting on two bogus checks totaling $7,500, presented to a bank in 2001.

What's most interesting about Diddle's alleged crime is his occupation. At the time of his arrest this spring, he was the principal of the Excel Institute, a Columbus charter school.

Diddle is by training an educator. He was an assistant principal at Westlake High School in the late 1980s and the head man at Mogadore High School in the early '90s. But Diddle also liked to practice the art of deceit. He pleaded guilty in 1996 to a federal count of credit-card fraud. He was alleged to have run up almost $30,000 in plastic debt, using the family name of a former wife. A judge sentenced him to six months in prison.

Forged documents facilitated Diddle's return to the classroom last fall. The state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation has determined that a clean background check in Diddle's personnel file is a fake. His principal's certificate looks suspect too. "He fooled everyone," Dr. Nganga Njoroge, the Excel Institute's director, told a reporter.

Yet altered documents were not all that allowed a convicted felon to return to the classroom. Diddle also took advantage of the lax standards of charter schools, which are publicly funded, but privately operated. About $200 million in state and local tax money followed students into the schools last year. Promising hope and innovation, charter schools have instead replicated many of public education's grim elements -- only with more buffoonery and fraud. Glenn Rondo's credit is ruined, but Ohio schoolchildren and taxpayers may be the victims of a greater con. Consider:

· When the High Life Youth Development Center in Columbus closed in 2000, after just six months of operation, the school had amassed $650,000 in debt. The school burned through cash, despite $257,000 in state aid for students who never showed up. School officials spent most of the money on themselves. A state audit found that administrators were paid $331,000 -- more than triple the amount spent on regular instruction ($106,000). Another High Life school in Columbus owed $1.8 million when it closed.

· The online Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow was ordered to repay the state $1.65 million for students it never taught. An audit found that in one month, only seven students -- out of a purported enrollment of more than 2,000 -- logged on to the school's computers.

· Public school officials in Cleveland and Akron and two former employees accused the Summit Academy charter schools of projecting disabilities onto their students in order to collect more funding. The Department of Education concluded that an academy in Parma misidentified half its students, resulting in a $345,000 overpayment.

· Teachers finished the Cleveland Alternative Learning Academy's 2000-'01 school year without pay. In a letter to The Plain Dealer, a teacher described how the East Side school, which was managed by a for-profit company in Maryland, lacked textbooks and toilet paper.

· Parents and a janitor reportedly filled in for absent teachers at the International Preparatory School on Shaker Boulevard. The state said the school overestimated its enrollment to the tune of $777,000. School officials, who are Muslim, later filed a $100 million lawsuit, claiming racial and religious bias.

· A state audit found that the Riser Military Academy in Columbus was paid $332,000 in excess of its enrollment. Riser, which convened in a vacated appliance store, employed a teacher who had a criminal record and another who was a self-described bounty hunter.

Despite these and other irregularities, Steve Burigana, the chief of the state's charter-school office, sees not rampant fraud but "misunderstandings" that have led astray some community schools, as they're known officially. "As you look deeper into the circumstances, you find that these are not bad-intentioned people who are out to create criminal acts," he says.

A teachers' union official thinks Burigana is being charitable. Akron Education Association Vice President Neil Quirk says the "vast majority" of charter-school operators are in business to make money. "These places are so loosely run and so bottom-line oriented," he says.

Sprinkle in a once-tight labor market, Quirk says, and "some pretty marginal characters" -- like Dale Diddle -- have found a place to dwell on the public dime.

Divorce records indicate that, after his release from prison in 1996, Diddle lived for a time in Hardin County and worked at a rent-to-own store. By 2001, he was employed at the Holiday Inn in Columbus -- and having his monthly wages docked $630 for child support. Diddle has two daughters by two failed marriages. (Scene was unable to reach Diddle. His Columbus attorney, David Niehoff, refused to comment and said that he would advise his client to do the same.)

Somehow, Diddle came to the attention of Dr. Nganga and Ruby Njoroge, a Columbus couple who last year started a charter school to serve about 75 at-risk teens. Dr. Njoroge had prior experience at a charter school with a similar premise. He designed the curriculum and taught social studies at the High Life Youth Development Center. Njoroge says he was not part of the leadership and, like so many others, was left a creditor when the school closed. "The teachers, we were all victims," he says.

Though seared by his experience at High Life, Njoroge the administrator managed to hire a principal with a federal-inmate number. Njoroge defends his hiring efforts. Diddle's paperwork was complete, Njoroge says. He also says that he called the schools where Diddle served as principal and confirmed his employment. "As far as we are concerned, we crossed every 't' and dotted every 'i,'" Njoroge says.

Indeed, the state is not holding the Njoroges responsible for the apparent forgeries in Diddle's file. "What Dr. Njoroge presented to us was all the things he was required to present to us in order to show that he had properly addressed the requirements of the department, with regard to employing someone who is to be engaged as an administrator who deals with children," Burigana says.

If Burigana's endorsement of Excel's screening process sounds tortured, there is a reason: Diddle's hiring is defensible only in legal terms.

Njoroge's supposedly thorough vetting, for instance, does not appear to have included speaking with Diddle's references. Of the three people Diddle listed on his résumé, none occupies his stated position. David Minich, for example, hasn't been the principal of Westlake High School since retiring in 1997.

Even if Minich were still working at the high school, prospective employers would have trouble reaching him at the telephone number provided. On Diddle's résumé, the 216 area code still applies to Westlake.

Of course, Diddle probably did not want anyone to reach Minich. Scene requested an interview with the retired principal through the Westlake schools' superintendent's office. A secretary in the office who spoke with Minich said that he started laughing when Diddle's name was mentioned. Minich declined comment, as did another Diddle-era Westlake administrator the secretary reached.

Njoroge says "there was no suspicion" of Diddle's professional record; yet, even taken at face value, the résumé should have caused worry. A flourishing career, culminating with Diddle's being named Mogadore principal in 1991, takes a sudden, low-achieving turn. From 1996 to the present, Diddle claims to have been a graduate student at the Ohio State University and an "education specialist and transportation manager" at, yep, a Columbus Holiday Inn.

Other documents Diddle furnished Njoroge (which Njoroge, in turn, passed to Scene) fail to establish recent whereabouts, let alone anything resembling an achievement. Diddle's most recent letter of reference was written 15 years ago. An academic transcript refutes Diddle's own claim that he had been immersed in graduate work. A registrar's report printed in 2000 shows that Diddle last enrolled at OSU in 1993 and that he never completed a graduate-level course.

Njoroge, however, was placated by Diddle's claims that he was working on a doctorate and substitute teaching. "He was continuing in the education field, in one way or the other," Njoroge says, when asked about the apparent gaps between Diddle's time at Mogadore and his arrival at Excel.

Njoroge's lack of rigor in researching his school's future principal may be explained, in part, by imprecision where his own qualifications are concerned. Njoroge runs a nonprofit organization called the Spring of Life Fund, which he describes as "concerned with hunger and all that." The mission also includes teaching golf to inner-city kids. Spring of Life has won $79,000 in grants from the United States Golf Association. The USGA Foundation's website explains that Njoroge learned the game as a caddy in his native Kenya. Njoroge is also described as a professor at the University of Dayton. According to the university, however, Njoroge last taught there in 1988. Records show that he was part-time faculty, a designation that seems a far cry from professor. A part-time instructor "could have come in and taught one class," a university official says.

Njoroge confirms that he taught at Dayton for only one term. He says that he would be more accurately described as an "assistant professor." He was an assistant professor of education in the black studies department at Ohio State in the early '70s and, later, an assistant professor at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. He does not believe that a 15-year absence from the classroom precludes him from using the title. "I am referring myself to you as a doctor, and my Ph.D. was, what, 20 years ago?" he says.

As for Njoroge's present-day incarnation as charter-school operator, Diddle was not his only problem. A week after its principal was arraigned, the school closed because of a rent dispute with the building's landlord, who said the Njoroges hadn't paid their bills. The Njoroges said the landlord broke promises to renovate space in a nearby building. (Both structures appear to have been apartment houses in a former life.) Eventually, the dispute was settled, and the students (state records show a May enrollment of 38) were able to complete the school year. A new home, Dr. Njoroge adds, has been found for the fall.

The Columbus Dispatch also reported that, in the past, the Njoroges faced $156,000 in liens and judgments for failure to pay taxes. Dr. Njoroge says the trouble arose from a cleaning business his wife ran. "We were never declared bankrupt," he says. "The accountant messed up the books. In fact, one of the accountants left the country and disappeared with the books."

In any case, bankruptcy would not have prevented the Njoroges from opening a charter school. The 1997 law creating the schools took a "subsidize first, ask questions later" approach.

The law, for instance, did not prohibit board members from working for and profiting from the schools they were supposed to govern. The loophole allowed apparently nefarious educators, such as the High Life officials, to turn pupil aid into a slush fund.

A change in the law restricts related-party transactions, but profit-mindedness is already entrenched in the system. The largest "education management organization," White Hat Ventures and its subsidiaries, grossed $42 million in base funding last year -- almost a quarter of the total that Ohio charter schools received. The for-profit White Hat and the nonprofit schools it contracts with are virtually indistinguishable. The Hope Academy on West 130th Street, for instance, sends 97 percent of its revenues to WHLS, a White Hat subsidiary.

White Hat is named for the sartorial flair of its founder, the Akron businessman David Brennan [see sidebar]. A generous giver to Republican causes, Brennan has pushed for privatization in K-12 education since then-Governor George Voinovoich asked him to chair the Commission on Educational Choice in 1992. Brennan was instrumental in the creation of Cleveland's voucher program, which paved the way for charter schools. He is a savior to "choice" advocates, but a devil to teacher unions and other guardians of public education.

Profit-seeking might be tolerated or even applauded, if charter schools were fulfilling their promise. Alas, taken as a whole, their students' proficiency-test scores have been dreadful. Statewide, just 16 percent of the 2,444 fourth graders in charter schools passed a reading test administered last October, according to an analysis in The Cincinnati Enquirer. Among urban districts, only Dayton schools fared worse. (Test data from the Excel Institute are not yet available.)

Charter school operators have claimed to be at a disadvantage at test time. "We're dealing with the most academically challenged students," the CEO of White Hat Ventures, Mark Thimmig, told the Akron Beacon Journal in December. Of course, educators in urban districts have claimed the same defense. Little good it did them. Forty states have passed charter school laws in the last dozen years, largely in response to low proficiency-test scores at "failing" schools.

Whatever the merits of the concept, the law creating charter schools in Ohio qualifies for disaster relief. Last year, then-state Auditor Jim Petro saw a "substantial breakdown" in the oversight that should exist between the Department of Education and the schools granted charters. Petro came up with 109 recommendations to improve the program -- a wish list that seemed to speak to the incompetence and skullduggery his office had seen in many schools' financial ledgers.

A former member of the Ohio House who sponsored the charter school bill offers no apologies. Mike Fox, chair of the Education Committee until 1997, when he retired from the House and became a Butler County commissioner, says the program is on a "learning curve." He adds: "What drove me was a need for system change. There will be good charter schools, and there will be bad charter schools, and the marketplace will take out the bad ones."

Fox responds to most criticisms of charter schools by arguing that the problems are the "same or worse" in public schools. If nothing else, he says, charter schools have lit a match under that monopoly. A consultant hired by the Middletown City Schools in southwest Ohio recently interviewed parents who installed their children in a charter school. "The real target of the charter schools was to expose [the public system] to market pressure," Fox says.

Fox blames charter school failures on resistance from the public schools and cash starvation. No doubt, the education establishment has enjoyed watching these upstarts struggle. "So far, it's an experiment that hasn't worked," says John Brandt, the executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association. As for money, charter schools receive about $5,000 per student. Operators are finding the sum insufficient for instruction in a traditional setting, especially for the upper grades. The trend is toward online instruction, with moralist and slot-machine enthusiast Bill Bennett among the digital edupreneurs.

Still, the brick-and-mortar setting offers advantages, too. Start-ups are eligible for state and federal grants up to $500,000. Quirk says that crafty operators have figured out that a school is a school if it has just 25 students, and "each time, it's another half-million coming through." He adds: "The ways to manipulate this are just incredible."

To be sure, not all charter schools are founded with dubious intent. Citizens' Academy, a 300-student, K-5 school near University Circle, boasts a reputable board and improving test scores. The school's executive director, Perry White, laments how the failures have dominated the headlines. "There are charter schools out there that don't get press because they're not doing anything wrong, and, in fact, they're doing a wonderful job," he says. Besides, White adds, start-ups -- whether a business or a not-for-profit or a new family -- are not at their best in the first and second years.

If charter schools are here to stay, the challenge for the state is to find a level of oversight that detects boobs and cheats, without smothering the autonomy that makes the initiative worthwhile. White says that the principal of his school, whom he holds in high regard, would not be eligible to serve as principal of a traditional public school, because he hasn't earned the necessary college credits.

Still, charter schools are not exempt from all government controls. Teachers need certification, and a recent study found that 54 percent of the teachers in Ohio charter schools lack the appropriate credentials. Dale Diddle's file contains an apparently forged principal's certificate. The document bears the signature of State Superintendent Ted Sanders, who did not hold the job in September 1999, when the certificate was supposedly issued.

Ironically, though, Diddle did not need the principal's certificate to get the job at Excel. In fact, charter school principals need not hold teaching certificates -- a fact that the Department of Education seemed to avoid acknowledging in previous press accounts of the Diddle affair. All that is required of principals is that they pass a criminal background check, meaning that a high-school dropout could lead the faculty and students at charter schools. "We would hope that the schools employ qualified individuals," Burigana says, hope seeming to be the operative word.

Diddle's background check is a sloppy forgery, a crude cut-and-paste job. A state forensic scientist noted that the forger used the wrong font and an invalid authentication number (it had an extraneous digit). Again, though, a dummied background check might not have been needed. When it checks fingerprints, the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation does not routinely scan for federal or out-of-state charges.

When he spoke to the Dispatch in April, Dr. Njoroge could not recall how Diddle's background check was processed. Normally, he said, applicants have their fingerprints taken by a local law-enforcement agency. The school then sends the fingerprints to the BCI. Diddle's purportedly clean check is addressed to the Excel Institute.

But in a more recent interview with Scene, Ruby Njoroge remembers that Diddle furnished the bogus BCI document. "He said he already had one that was good," she said. She later added: "He put it in there," referring to his personnel file.

State officials care not how the document got in Diddle's file. They care only that something was there. "They produced the document," Burigana says.

Burigana's absolution of Excel comes as no surprise. Throughout charter schools' brief history, state education officials have sounded more like cheerleaders than regulators. "[I]t is obvious that parents have a great interest in these innovative places of learning," department spokesman J.C. Benton propagandized in 2001. That same year, however, the Legislative Office of Education Oversight reported that the approaches taken by Ohio's charter schools were not unique, "but have, in fact, been tried in traditional public schools and across the nation."

Even if in name only, innovation buys a lot of patience in Columbus. Recall the Summit Academy in Parma, which was overpaid $345,000. The state agreed not to seek to recover the money, pursuant to a "corrective active plan for the classification of students." The plan appears to have failed. According to a state audit, the school was overpaid $179,000 the following year. (The audit also shows that the school pays 100 percent of its revenue to Summit Academy Management, a for-profit company. Three school founders serve on the company's board of directors.)

The Department of Education's leniency is perhaps a reflection of the conservatism prevailing in state government. Republicans held the legislature and the governor's office when the schools were created, just as they do today.

In the case of the charter school that gave the big desk to an ex-con, state officials refuse to second-guess the operators. "I think you can question decisions after the fact in hiring situations, when an employee doesn't work out, for whatever reason," Burigana says. "Of course, that's especially the case when there is some misrepresentation involved."

He adds: "From time to time, there will be errors in judgment, but I don't think we can indict an entire movement."

The Njoroges, meantime, are upbeat about the Excel Institute's second school year. They hope for far less (or far different) media attention. While her husband had answered questions patiently, Ruby Njoroge bristled when a reporter sought to learn more about how Diddle came to work at their school. "You people are really disgusting," she said at one point, in an interview that ended with her hanging up the telephone.

The 1987 Westlake High School yearbook peered into the life of the new assistant principal, best known to juniors and seniors as the dean of discipline. "Mr. Diddle did not always want to work in education," a short bio stated. "Instead, he really wanted to pursue a career in acting."

In a way, Diddle never gave up his first love. The con man's life is a perpetual performance.

Diddle is scheduled to appear in court in October. The assistant Franklin County prosecutor handling the case expects that Diddle will enter a plea at that time. He has already surrendered his teaching certificate.

Earlier this summer, Scene knocked on the door of Diddle's last-known address in Columbus. No one answered. If Diddle were away, he would have discovered upon his return that he had been served an eviction notice.

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