BRIGHTON — More than 100 parents, students and staff of Eagle Ridge Academy attended a school meeting Friday to voice concerns they had about theft and embezzlement issues that recently surfaced at the school.
Former Eagle Ridge Academy Executive Director Bob Hughes is alleged to have improperly handled funds, according to Adams County Deputy District Attorney Jess Redman.
Parents wanted to know how the school is going to move forward, how students would be impacted, and be reassured something like this will never happen again.
Superintendent Chris Fiedler said a little less than $225,000 has to be repaid to the Colorado Department of Education within the next 45 days. He said School District 27J will be paying the CDE and Eagle Ridge Academy will have five years to repay the district. The amount translates to about $100 in per-student funding over the five years.
Fiedler also expressed his “utmost confidence” in current principal and head of school Ben Ploeger.
Ploeger told parents the school is working with district Chief Financial Officer Suzi DeYoung to ensure nothing like this happens again. He said the school’s financial policy was completely rewritten to “make sure there are different and sufficient checks and balances” for any transactions, no less than five people need to review the transaction and it must be approved by him.
Additionally, Ploeger said there are weekly updates with DeYoung as well as monthly reviews and that the school’s governing board will also be increasing its oversight of finance.
Parents also wanted to know what they could do to help the school. Ploeger said one of the reasons the school is so successful is because of parent involvement.
“At this time more than ever, we need your help. We know what the impact to our bottom line has been and anything you can do to help with the school will help,” he said.
Former Eagle Ridge Academy Head of School Bob Hughes is facing two counts of theft and embezzlement following an investigation of “financial irregularities” at the school.
The district first discovered financial irregularities in the expenditures of the school’s start-up grant during a June 2012 audit 2012 and turned the investigation over to the Brighton Police Department and the Colorado Department of Education in July 2012. Hughes left the school in August 2012, citing health concerns.
Brighton Police issued a felony warrant Jan. 7 on the allegations of theft and bond was set at $5,000.
The case has been filed with the Adams County District Attorney’s Office, Redman confirmed Jan. 11, but no court date has been set.
As a result of the investigation, the CDE informed district officials on Jan. 2 they would be terminating the grant and that portions of the first two years of the three year grant will have to be repaid.
Megan McDermott, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Education, said their investigation into the matter is ongoing and that the department had no comment at this time.
Principal and Head of School Ben Ploeger said the charter school grant is a federal start up grant, which is not to be used for operations, but start up costs on items like infrastructure, computers and textbooks. He said Eagle Ridge Academy was awarded the full grant amount; $195,000 a year for three years.
According to Ploeger, the school would have been in its third and final year of the grant this year; however, the school will not be receiving that funding.
“I would have liked for the school to have had that money, however, I’ve been operating under the assumption that that money might not come. And we’ve truly done a good job in making do with what we’ve had,” he said on Wednesday. “I feel that it is unfortunate that it has happened. At the same time, I am pleased to say that that life at Eagle Ridge Academy will go on and we will continue to do an excellent job, even despite this.”
The scandal is the latest in the history of Brighton’s charter schools. Brighton Collegiate High School dissolved in the spring of 2010 after a series of scandals. It reopened as Eagle Ridge Academy for the 2010-11 school year.
The charter school is up for renewal with the district; the 27J Board of Education will consider the renewal process at its Jan. 22 meeting. Fiedler said he believes the board will extend the contract.
“Our commitment through this entire investigation has been and will continue to be to do our best to minimize any potential impact on the students and families of Eagle Ridge Academy during this school year,” Fiedler said. “I have the utmost confidence in the current administrative leadership team at Eagle Ridge Academy and their commitment to providing a quality education for all of their students.”