Sunday, March 28, 2010

Merrick Academy students suffer as State Senate President Malcolm Smith profits from charter school

Merrick Academy students suffer as State Senate President Malcolm Smith profits from charter school

Sunday, March 28th 2010, 4:00 AM

The Daily News recently found that State Senate President Malcolm  Smith (center) has been receiving campaign donations from charter  schools he helped found.


The Daily News recently found that State Senate President Malcolm Smith (center) has been receiving campaign donations from charter schools he helped found.

Students at Merrick Academy charter school - housed in an old bowling alley in Queens Village - must cross busy Jamaica Ave. for recess in a nearby park because there's no gym or playground.

They also must get used to water leaking into classrooms when it rains and wearing winter coats inside when there's no heat.

"The school is on a very big intersection," said Kenneth Eriaidubor, who has a second-grader and a kindergartner at Merrick. "We are very concerned that leaving a school is not a really safe zone for the children."

"There's a leak, there's heating problems," said Sidney Dasent, whose daughter is a second-grader. "There's even a problem with supplies."

There's also another potential problem - one many parents may not know about: Merrick has served as a source of campaign funds and patronage for one of its high-profile board members - State Senate President Malcolm Smith.

Smith was one of the founding members of Merrick and was on its board from the time it moved into the alley in 2001 through June 2007, records show.

During that time, the K-6 charter school - run entirely with public money - has written at least three small checks to Smith's campaign.

A state controller's audit in 2006 noted slack fiscal controls and singled out a $140 check written by a school employee to attend the fund-raiser of an unnamed state senator.

The Daily News discovered there were actually three checks - all written out of Merrick's checking accounts - to Smith's campaign: $65 in 2003, $140 in 2004 and another $140 in 2005. At the time, Smith was on the board.

While Smith was on Merrick's board, an architect did "preliminary drawings" regarding turning the bowling alley into a school. That architect also was working on one of Smith's personal properties at the time, records show.

The same architect was also later hired to design a home owned by another Merrick board member and Smith ally, Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks.

The Merrick board has been loaded up with Smith allies. Besides Meeks, there's Smith's former business partner Darryl Greene.

In 1999, two years before he became a Merrick board member, Greene pleaded guilty to stealing $500,000 on government contracts. Greene left the Merrick board in the last few months.

Until recently, another board member was Joan Flowers, campaign treasurer for Smith and Meeks. She's a Senate staffer.

Flowers also worked as counsel to Merrick for a time, pocketing a modest $19,675 in fees while she served on the board. Flowers did not return calls.

Smith declined to answer questions about Merrick. Last week he came under fire for his involvement in another charter school, the Peninsula Preparatory Academy in Far Rockaway.

Peninsula students were pulled out of a spacious public school in 2008 and jammed into cramped trailers without a cafeteria, gym or playground.

The trailers are on land being developed by a major donor to Smith. The donor is using the school as a selling point to market new houses being built next door.

Smith says the school was forced to move because the Department of Education refused to grant them more space. DOE officials say that isn't true.

Across Queens at Merrick, parents acknowledge that academics have improved, but they continue to have concerns about an unsafe environment - and some have raised questions about where school money is going.

For instance, the school spent $200,000 in 2009 on "security," but there's no security guard.

"We don't have security, and that's a problem. No names are taken down," one teacher said. "I had a parent come in. She was in my face and she was very aggressive. Another teacher that was much taller than her had to intervene."

Dasent said he's been asked to pitch in with basics likes color copy paper, pencils and hand sanitizer.

"That shouldn't happen in the school with proper revenue," Dasent said.

Circle of friends

In its early days, school officials confirmed that architect Robert Gaskin did some "preliminary drawings" on how to transform the bowling alley at 207-01 Jamaica Ave. into a school.

Records show Gaskin applying for a permit in July 2001 for the school building. At the time, records show Gaskin was also the architect of record on a two-family house on 230th St. that Smith owned and was renovating.

James Stovall, an official with Victory Schools, the for-profit company that Merrick pays to run the school, said Gaskin was not paid for his work at the school. Gaskin, who lists the Merrick job on his Web site, did not return calls to reveal how he got the job with Merrick or Smith.

In December, the Buildings Department cited Merrick for failing to fix an inoperable elevator and fined it $5,000. The school notes it has no wheelchair-bound students who would need the elevator and blamed a vendor for the violation. A settlement with the city is in the works.

Meanwhile, parents for years paid a company tied to the longtime principal, Alma Alston, for after-school activities at Merrick, records show.

Records show Alston is listed as manager, consultant and director of Creative Community Consultants, Merrick's after-school provider. The company's office is at the school.

"Victory was aware, did an investigation and all I can say is she is on leave of absence," Stovall said. The school recently ended its agreement with Creative Community.

In a phone interview, Alston insisted she was "involved" in the company, but added, "The only thing I did was assist the company. They were a sponsored community-based operation."

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