I-Team: Cincinnati school a family business

CINCINNATI - VLT Academy is like a family for the 900 students who walk through its doors. The downtown charter school offers an alternative for inner-city kids seeking a better education.

But for the administration, it truly is a family.

The superintendent's husband and her daughter both hold administrative positions at VLT Academy , and one of the school's largest contracts went to the husband's company.

Like all Ohio charter schools, VLT Academy doesn't charge tuition. Instead, tax money follows the students from their public schools to the charter school. VLT Academy received $7.4 million last year, spending most of it on administration and building expenses, according to state records.

Valerie Lee earns $144,000 a year as superintendent. Clyde Lee is the building manager currently making $65,000, down from a high of $80,000 a year. Echole Harris, the superintendent's daughter, has been promoted from a $45,000 per year administrative assistant, to a $99,000 a year mid-level administrator.

Harris has made as much as $102,000 a year when her summer contracts at VLT Academy were added to her salary for the school year.

The average base salary for a superintendent in the state is $103,000, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

"If you can arrange for your own mother to be your boss," said Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost, "the sky's the limit on how well you can do in your career."

Yost's office has referred the matter to the Ohio Ethics Commission .

In response to 9 News' questions about the relationships of the employees, the school's lawyer stated , "the board hired Ms. Harris with full knowledge of the family relationship. She is fully qualified for her position and has no reporting relationship to the superintendent." (Full Q&A with the school at goo.gl/RO9Me )

But the I-Team found the superintendent's signature on 10 of her daughter's 13 employment contracts. The job description for Echole Harris bears the signatures of both mother and daughter right next to each other, with Valerie's Lee's signature on the line labeled "supervisor."

Her latest contracts with VLT Academy show the superintendent's daughter reports to the school's chief financial officer. If that's true, Harris makes more than her boss, according to state records of the school's payroll.

$323,000 Janitorial Contract

Clyde Lee is not only the superintendent's husband -- he's also the building manager for VLT Academy.

The school's lawyer added, "the superintendent secured the job for neither her daughter nor her spouse."

All of Clyde Lee's personal contracts indicate, "additional duties may be assigned by the superintendent." That would be Valerie Lee, his wife.

Mr. Lee also owns CEED Janitorial Services, the only company ever hired to clean the school since it opened in 2005.

The Ohio Auditor first warned the school in a 2007 audit that it should bid out its janitorial contract. Auditors discovered Clyde Lee was given his job without competition, and the $180,000 janitorial contract was awarded to his company without an open bidding process.

The school board followed the auditor's recommendation in 2010, when four companies filed bids for the job:

  • CEED Janitorial $249,900
  • Dona Rosa's Cleaning $135,600
  • Jani King of Cincinnati $128,352
  • Red Carpet Janitorial $82,200

The building manager's company was the highest bid by at least $114,300 and it was more than three times the low bid from Red Carpet Janitorial.

Red Carpet's bid package spanned 44 pages. Clyde Lee's proposal was submitted on two pages, but came with a 300 percent higher price.

The board selected Clyde Lee's CEED Janitorial anyway.

"You know this doesn't even pass the stink test," said Yost, the state auditor. "You just look at a 44-page bidding document versus a two-page, that kind of a spread with the cost, and you have to scratch your head and wonder what's going on here?"

Kelly Euller from Red Carpet Janitorial shared the auditor's skepticism.

"It appears to be fairly obvious maybe what's going on, but it's not about cleaning the buildings," Euller said.
Euller said his company would have made a respectable profit cleaning VLT Academy for $82,800 a year. He was surprised to learn he lost to a bid three times higher.

"That pricing is so far out in left field, it's in a different universe," Euller said.

Red Carpet Janitorial has been around for 40 years. Euller's company cleans several Tri-State area schools, including the 100,000 square foot LaSalle High School. While contract requirements vary school to school, Red Carpet cleans LaSalle for less than half the price VLT pays the company owned by the superintendent's husband.

We couldn't find a single listing for CEED Janitorial Services online or in the phone book. We don't know if the company has any

other customers.

Records with the Ohio Secretary of State show CEED's incorporation papers were canceled last year for failure to file or pay state taxes. We went to the Hamilton address listed on those incorporation papers and found a home instead of a business.

The Butler County Auditor lists the home's owner as the Valerie E. Lee Trust. The current contract lists another address for CEED's corporate offices -- a $623,000 home in West Chester owned by both the superintendent and the building manager.

VLT Academy has grown over the years, and so has the janitorial contract. In September 2010, the school board voted to pay Clyde Lee's company an extra $54,000 when VLT added a new building to its campus. The contract had grown to $303,900 without the board re-opening the bidding process.

That decision was made in the same board meeting where it was revealed the school had moved into academic emergency, and the superintendent revealed all staff members would have to re-interview for their own jobs.

Now the janitorial contract is worth more than $323,000 a year, including $8,000 for summer painting.

VLT Academy told the state auditor that the board originally selected CEED Janitorial in part because the company offered to paint in the summer free of charge. Now that's a separate line item.

The other reasons Mr. Lee's company was selected, according to the school, included his offer to set up and take down tables and chairs during lunch, and to provide an employee on Saturdays. Those items were not on the lengthy checklist provided to the competitive bidders.

When presenting the 2010 bids to the school board, the CFO indicated that all the bidders would be able to meet or exceed the requirements set forth in the checklist. The winning bidder was selected for offering to provide items the school had never asked for -- services only the existing contractor could know the board wanted.

We requested interviews with Valerie Lee, Clyde Lee, and Echole Harris. All three declined through VLT's lawyer.

But that didn't stop Clyde Lee from confronting our 9 News crew when we were recording on a public sidewalk across the street from the main school building. We were using a large TV camera on a tripod to get video of the building, buses, and students as school let out for the day.

A man later identified as Mr. Lee approached our camera without identifying himself, and insisted that we were breaking the law by "taking pictures of kids." He grabbed the camera, covering the lens, and refused to identify himself. He then said he was going to call the police.

While it is perfectly legal to take pictures on a public street, we are very respectful when recording school children. We shoot either out-of-focus shots, or we zoom in on backpacks or shoes to obscure the identity of the children. In any case, the school and its administrators were our focus, not the kids.

Mr. Lee returned about an hour later to say he was sorry for grabbing the camera, and that we had every right to be there. He never said who he was before walking back into the school building.

The confrontation was the primary subject of the next meeting of the school board. Despite a lengthy description of the event by the superintendent, she never identified her husband as the employee involved, and the board never asked. We offered to answer questions about the incident, but the board declined before retreating into closed executive session.

Valerie Lee also had nothing to say to us when we gave her the opportunity at the board meeting.

The school's lawyer refused our repeated requests to identify the employee who confronted us on the sidewalk. It took us several days and multiple sources to confirm the man was Clyde Lee.

Contracts show the superintendent, her daughter, her husband, and his company have been awarded contracts worth at least $2.5 million since the school opened.

"The old saying is blood is thicker than water," Ohio Auditor of State Dave Yost concluded, "and the law is set up so those blood relationships don't lead to bad business decisions when you're talking about the public's money."

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