A former New Jersey charter school principal says she was fired after raising concerns about illegal practices at the school, managed by Gladwyne entrepreneur Vahan Gureghian’s company.
In a whistle-blower lawsuit filed in Atlantic County, Jeanine Bethel accuses the company, CSMI, of retaliating against her after she repeatedly informed it of problems at the Atlantic Community Charter School during her tenure, which lasted from 2016 to 2018.
Among her allegations: “Illegal deductions” were being taken from staff paychecks; students weren’t being tested to determine whether they needed special education; and CSMI’s administrators were illegally using federal money to supplant, rather than supplement the charter school’s funding.
Bethel also says she was asked, but refused to misrepresent educational data on the school’s plan for federal Title I money.
“The common theme uncovered by plaintiff in her tenure as principal was that CSMI, which was running a for-profit charter school, would compromise the charter school’s educational program for money’s sake,” says the lawsuit, dated June 26.
Max Tribble, a spokesperson for CSMI, said the company does not comment on ongoing litigation or personnel issues, “but we do plan to vigorously defend our position against these false allegations.”
The charter school, which is also named in Bethel’s lawsuit, directed a reporter to CSMI.
Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. In New Jersey, the schools are authorized by the state to be run by boards of trustees.
At the Atlantic Community Charter School, Bethel says staff were told by a CSMI employee that they were not allowed to attend board of trustees meetings. Bethel also says she was not allowed to speak at board meetings.
CSMI ensured “only its voice would be heard before the board of trustees, a voice which again was more concerned with profit than the students’ educational program,” the lawsuit said.
The board is also named in the lawsuit. Its president could not be reached Friday.
Bethel’s lawsuit says she wrote reports intended for the board, but was told by a CSMI employee four months before her firing that she should provide the board only with monthly enrollment and other data. Bethel also said she was removed from overseeing New Jersey’s PARCC standardized testing, which she said was instead managed by an untrained CSMI employee.
Bethel said she was fired “on the apparent strength of an investigation” by CSMI, which she says accused her of violating state law requiring criminal background checks for school volunteers. Bethel said she brought in a presenter with a criminal history, but that he was not a volunteer. She said she was unaware that another school official let the presenter use the school’s facilities for a business purpose.
Bethel’s lawyer, Bob Merenich, declined to comment on the suit.
The lawsuit noted that Atlantic Community Charter School is on probation, which was confirmed by the New Jersey Department of Education. New Jersey’s charter law allows the state to place charter schools on probationary status.