Yesterday was a terrible day for D.C.'s charter school movement on many levels. Of course, the news that there appears to be strong evidence that senior executives and the board chair of Options Public Charter School diverted millions of dollars in public money provided for the education of severely at-risk and disabled children to companies they control is enough to make anyone ill. The story, of course, has the public wondering whether financial irregularities such as this could be going on at other charters. And now the questions are coming, as the editors of the Washington Post ask this morning, why the problems were not found earlier. It will take many difficult days to alleviate these concerns. Most unfortunate is that the trouble at Options distracts attention from the tremendous work being completed under extremely difficult circumstances by the thousands of people dedicated to improving public education in the nation's capital.
The most severe shock felt up and down the spines of local charter leaders is the implication that Jeremy Williams was involved in this plot. As the Post editors comment:
"The allegation that Jeremy L. Williams, former chief financial officer for the public charter school board who once served as interim executive director, assisted in the scheme is particularly troubling, since he was the official in charge of fiscal oversight."
Mr. Williams, up until yesterday, was one of the most respected and well-liked members of the tight knit charter school community. I met him almost a decade ago as board chair of the William E. Doar, Jr. Public Charter School for the Performing Arts. Our school had accomplished something to this day which is extremely rare; we secured a permanent facility in our first year of operation. However, this created something of an anomaly for these new alternative schools. Doar had millions of dollars of debt on its balance sheet. It was Mr. Williams who guided our financial reporting and explained our unique income statements to doubters at the Public Charter School Board.
He played a larger role when I moved on to Washington Latin. Money was extremely tight as it often is for charters in their early years. During that period it was also not unusual for the city to be late or inaccurate with its quarterly payments. I remember like it was yesterday one such stretch of time in which our funding did not come in as expected and head of school Martha Cutts and I were petrified that we wouldn't meet our payroll. It was Mr. Williams who was able to break through the bureaucratic logjam to get us the money we were owed. There were many other instances of him providing extremely valuable aid and advice.
I know that he played a special role in the history of D.C.'s charters in creating, along with past Chairman Tom Nida, the original systems for assessing the fiscal health of schools. He did his work, not as some regulator threatening harsh punishment if his demands were not met, but with genuine kindness and sincere compassion, and the constant reassurance that everything was going to be O.K. His smile was enough to keep you coming back to the office day after day.
I know I speak for many others when I say that I hope the allegations are not true. And we thank Mr. Williams for all of his loyal assistance over so many years.