I-Team: VLT Academy loses sponsor, votes to start closing its doors

VLT Academy called 'worst' in Hamilton County

CINCINNATI -- One of Cincinnati's largest charter schools voted Tuesday night to start the process of closing its doors for good.

VLT Academy's school board members must find a sponsor by June 30, or the school will shut down and leave hundreds of students without a place to learn.

The school's sponsor, Educational Resource Consultants of Ohio (ERC), recently pulled its contract -- meaning VLT Academy cannot open for another school year unless it finds another sponsor.

"We organizationally reviewed the performance of this school and decided not to sponsor the school for an additional year," ERC spokesperson Jodi Billerman said.

The Ohio Department of Education called VLT Academy "a demonstrable academic failure" that did not meet 97 percent of state standards.

The state also called it "one of the worst schools in Hamilton County."

"The renewal process was really all about -- is this school on track to succeed and to produce outstanding results for students? And we really did not see that," Billerman said.

VLT Academy on Sycamore Street was the target of an October 2012 I-Team investigation revealing the taxpayer-funded school was run like a family business. 

A state audit showed the school paid its superintendent Valerie E. Lee, her family and her husband's company hundreds of thousand of tax dollars per year.

The I-Team revealed VLT Academy always picked the highest bidding company for one of its largest contracts. That company is owned by Clyde Lee, Valerie's husband.

According to the audit released by the Ohio Auditor of State , CEED Janitorial Services was paid $348,900 in 2011 to clean VLT Academy. Clyde owns CEED, and is also on the school's payroll as a project manager making a $65,000 annual salary.

Investigation Part 1: Cincinnati school a family business
Part 2: School provision allowed officials and family to profit from tax money

Another audit  cited the school for selecting Clyde's company without seeking competitive bids. VLT sought bids the next year, but once again selected Clyde's company even though he submitted the highest bid by far.

In VLT's official response to auditors, it said, "Mr. Lee will no longer be employed by the Academy." But the response also explained a way Clyde could keep his job and the money that comes with it.

"The Academy is revising its job description for the janitorial contract to include the responsibilities of Project Manager. Bids will be solicited and awarded for Janitorial Services/Project Manager in accordance with VLT Guidelines. CEED has an opportunity, like other vendors, to bid on the Janitorial Service/Project Manager contract," VLT Academy reported to the state.

In Ohio, community schools like VLT Academy are funded entirely by tax dollars.

Valerie's daughter, Echole Harris, is also employed by the school. The I-Team first uncovered contracts showing she signed 10 of Harris' 13 employment contracts.

The state audit showed Harris' annual salary was $92,049 for multiple job titles. VLT's response came with an admission that Harris reported directly to her mother.

The school told auditors, "Harris will no longer be employed as an administrator under the supervision of the Superintendent...the Assistant CFO/EMIS/SOES Coordinator will report to the Treasurer."

VLT Academy offered no further comment on the matter when contacted by the I-Team.

Billerman said the I-Team's findings did not factor into ERC's decision to pull its contract.

Those issues are before the Ohio Ethics Commission, which is expected to finish its investigation by next month.

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