Believe Charter Network Founder Indicted

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The city's determination to close the Believe Charter Network schools came into focus on Thursday when its founder, Eddie Calderon-Melendez, was arrested on 11 felony counts, including tax fraud, grand larceny and falsifying business records.

The office of the state attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, has been investigating Mr. Calderon-Melendez, 48, since last year, digging through tax and expense account records to figure out where tens of thousands of dollars of public money has gone, The New York Times reported on Friday.

In a statement, Mr. Schneiderman said:

“While earning a six-figure salary funded largely by taxpayer dollars, the defendant robbed the State of New York of much-needed revenue when he failed to pay his taxes for six years in a row. He then compounded his crime by creating false evidence to throw investigators off his trail.”

The Believe Network consists of Williamsburg Charter High School, an 870-student 9-12 school that he opened in 2004, and Believe Northside and Believe Southside, both high schools of fewer than 200 students in Brooklyn, which he opened five years later. During that period, the indictment says, he was paid about $1.4 million in compensation, more than $500,000 of it in 2009 alone.

The city has been adamant about shutting down the three schools, despite the protests of parents of the Williamsburg High School students and others at a public hearing in March. At that hearing, Theodoric Meyer reported for SchoolBook, Mr. Calderon-Melendez was recognized as a problem, but one that officials had addressed, according to the school's lawyer, Ellen K. Eagen:

The school’s board members who had conflicts of interest have resolved them or left the board, Ms. Eagen said. They have hired a management firm, Charter School Business Management, to review the school’s books. And the board has fired Mr. Calderon-Melendez, who Ms. Eagen called the source of most of the school’s troubles.

“I want to make it very clear, chancellor, that Eddie is gone,” she told Kathleen Grimm, the deputy schools chancellor who led the hearing. “He is no longer involved with this school.”

Mr. Calderon-Melendez, who opened Williamsburg Charter in 2004 and went on to form the Believe High School Network in Brooklyn, suffered from “founder’s syndrome,” Ms. Eagen said, which she recognized from her experience as a former teacher and school administrator.

Like some other founders, she said, Mr. Calderon-Melendez was charming and charismatic but ran his school with little influence from others. “We had one person calling the shots,” she said.

According to Friday's article in The Times:

Almost all of the money to operate the three schools came from public financing, according to investigators. Mr. Calderon-Melendez failed to pay at least $70,000 in state and city taxes on his income during those years, the authorities said.

He also spent about $1,800 on personal expenses in Europe, which he charged to a school credit card, then had employees falsify school records to cover up that spending, according to the indictment. No other employees of the schools or the Believe network have been charged.

Williamsburg Charter and Southside Charter are still on track to close this year, but Northside Charter received a reprieve from the state in March.

Also in the news, Nancy Bruni, a friend of SchoolBook and The Local in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, and a generous and knowledgeable resource for city school parents and students, offers some practical and helpful advice to English Language Learners this week. In a post in Voices of New York, a digital newsletter produced by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism that aggregates the best of New York's ethnic and community journalism, Ms. Bruni draws on her own experiences as an immigrant from Taiwan in 1972 in sixth grade. She writes:

I learned English the old fashion way: self-imposed language boot camp.

I started by watching old Chinese movies that I was familiar with, and I paid careful attention to the subtitles. I watched television shows – “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch” — to pick up the American jargon I needed. I worked on my speech, and used my neighbors to practice. I labored over my vocabulary, starting with five words a day from a dictionary, and working my way up to twenty words a day. It took me three years to be proficient at speaking English. Writing took a little more time. And it was hard work.

She then goes on to review the various programs for English language learners in city schools, and offer her own practical tips for becoming proficient in English. It's a valuable resource.

For public school students, parents and staff members, this is the last weekday of spring break. Enjoy. And welcome home, Yankees.