A handful of pissed-off parents are shaking things up in the Kennedale school district, where a private daycare business run by two district administrators has raised questions about a conflict of interest.
The after-school program for Kennedale’s two elementary schools, James F. Delaney and R.F. Patterson, is a for-profit business owned by Karen Furman, one of the district’s three associate superintendents, and Jan Cleere, the district’s coordinator of assessment and accountability.
Parents and at least one school board member believe that arrangement constitutes a clear conflict of interest, in this district of about 3,000 students southeast of Fort Worth. There are also concerns that the two administrators and school board may have violated several of the district’s own policies.
Furman and Cleere have never filed conflict-of-interest forms, as district rules require, and ran their business without a written contract with the district until 2010. Records indicate they ran the business, at least in part, out of their school offices and used district employees, like the school secretary, to process parents’ applications. They continue to receive a deep discount on monthly rent for using school facilities, and there are no records that the school board ever allowed other daycare businesses a chance to bid on providing the service.
As a result, the school board met in closed session last week with an attorney hired to investigate possible improprieties with the daycare service. The Texas Education Agency has received a complaint about the daycare and will investigate claims of misconduct over the next few weeks.
“I feel betrayed by the administration and board,” Kennedale parent Elisha Woodson said at a board meeting in July. “As a parent, I trusted that the board and administration followed the law to protect my child, and you have not.”
Asked if he believed the daycare was a beneficial and fair service to the district, Kennedale Superintendent Gary Dugger Dugger said that was “a tough question.”
“I don’t see any problem with it,” he said. “I’ll say that much.”
Though Furman and Cleere have run the side business since at least 2004, it wasn’t until a former Kennedale teacher posted a YouTube video of the June school board meeting that many parents and teachers learned who was running the daycare, called Imagination Zone, or I-Zone.
In that meeting, the school board seems ready to renew the daycare’s contract without any discussion when board member Julie Green questions why the district is giving such a huge rental discount to the business.
“I did some math on it… . When I broke it down, it’s about three hours a day they run I-Zone for 20 days on a normal month. That’s $8.75 a day that they are paying for rent,” Green said. “It looks bad that there’s two directors who work at KISD that are getting to do this for $175 [a month per school]. The perception is just not good.”
After several board members expressed disapproval of Green’s comments, she made a motion to postpone the contract renewal decision until the board could gather more information about the pricing of similar daycare programs. Green was outvoted 7-2, after which the board renewed the contract without taking any bids from other daycare services.
At least one other daycare program has had no chance to bid on the after-school business at the two elementaries despite expressing a willingness to pay higher rent and offer parents lower prices.
Academic Athlete, a similar program in nearby Mansfield, charges parents $10 less per week than I-Zone and pays that district more than twice as much in rental fees as I-Zone pays to Kennedale.
“At one point, we had contacted Kennedale, but … they weren’t interested in even hearing about our program,” said Jason Roberts, Academic Athlete’s executive director.
Because Roberts’ daycare is a nonprofit, it receives a discount from the Mansfield district on use of school facilities. A for-profit business would pay even more. When told about the $8.75 a day that I-Zone pays Kennedale, Roberts was surprised.
“That would be nice,” he said.
Jason Galloway, a parent of two Kennedale students, was “flabbergasted” when he learned about the rental rates.
“The rent is ridiculously cheap,” he said. “They are making a lot of money that I think should be — the school should be maximizing its potential income from this.”
Before 2004, the school district itself ran the daycare. Furman and Cleere took over after district auditors recommended that the service be privatized.
Furman spoke to the board last week, acknowledging that she hadn’t turned over personal financial records to the district, on advice of her attorney.
She and Cleere were, respectively, a counselor and a teacher when they took over, going into debt to get the business started, Furman said.
“We were asked to provide this service. Why us? Because nobody else wanted to take it on,” Furman said. “If there is something that needs to be addressed, rest assured that it will be addressed… . Many educators work second jobs to supplement their income.”
Furman and Dugger suggested that the furor was the result of one person “trying to sabotage the whole thing,” as Dugger put it. Neither gave a name.
Bryan Kuykendall, the former teacher who posted the video, has written about the daycare on a personal blog. He’s pretty sure he is the person being referred to. He’s done a lot of research, obtaining many public records on the topic.
Based on those records, he thinks there’s a problem.
Kuykendall asked for the district’s contracts with I-Zone, which only go back to 2010 –– six years after Furman and Cleere started the daycare. The first contract was signed in November 2010 but retroactively approved use of school facilities back to the start of school in August.
On tax forms filed with the Texas comptroller’s office, Furman lists her school district work number as the business contact. District policy states that “an employee shall not use his or her position with the district to attempt to sell products or services.”
Neither Furman nor Cleere ever filed affidavits with the school board officially disclosing their ownership of the business, which district policy requires. The policy’s definition of fraud includes “misappropriation of … district assets, including employee time.”
There hasn’t been much effort at transparency, either.
The I-Zone website didn’t provide information about Furman and Cleere until the heat was turned up this summer, when the site was updated from a single page with information about how to sign up for the service to a glossy multi-page site with profiles of the owners and their positions with the school district.
At last week’s meeting, the school board voted to hold a public forum to hear from the community on the issue. There’s no date yet.
Maria Douglas, a parent with six children in Kennedale schools, said there’s a principle at stake that has nothing to do with grudges.
“It’s not about the personalities,” she said. “I’m really hoping that the school board is brave and transparent enough to ask the hard questions.”