by Will Evans,  California Watch

Oakland’s school board has ordered a formal investigation of a church school, a school board member confirmed today, following a meeting last night where angry parents of former students accused the school of exploiting and abusing children.

The Oakland Unified School District board directed its general counsel to investigate whether St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church’s private school inflated its enrollment numbers to get more taxpayer funding from the district, according to board member Noel Gallo.

If the investigation finds any violations, the district will cut off funding immediately, Gallo said, and any evidence of criminal conduct will be referred to the district attorney.

“There was unanimous concern by the board and there was a unanimous vote to direct the legal counsel to
do it,” Gallo said in an interview.

A district spokesman said he could not comment on closed-session action, but acknowledged an investigation has begun.

“We are investigating and this is a priority, but what our actions might be in the future depend on what the investigation uncovers,” said spokesman Troy Flint.

The board made its decision in closed session, after a rowdy meeting during which mothers and a grandmother of former students spoke out, claiming the school mistreats its students. The West Oakland school requires students to solicit donations at BART stations most weekday evenings.

“They pimp their kids out, they beat their kids, and they do not teach their kids,” said Kelly Corbitt, who pulled her daughter out of St. Andrew this year. “I’m disgusted to see that those people are still in business and you guys give them money all the time for grants when they don’t do anything for the kids.”

After the impassioned complaints, Robert Lacy Jr., a St. Andrew teacher whose father is principal and pastor, asked to speak, sparking a hubbub among audience members who hadn’t realized he was there.

“We heard that this information was going to be brought up tonight; however, we were not ready to respond,” Lacy said. “But I would like to say we are able to respond to every question that arises about the money that comes to St. Andrew. … And we’re ready to respond and we can respond to any questions that are addressed to St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church private school. And that’s all I’d like to comment at this time.”

Lacy did not address any specific allegations and declined to talk with reporters as he left with his father, Robert Lacy. The elder Lacy stopped to complain to a police officer that reporters were “harassing us.” The two then walked away, covering their faces with sheets of paper as a CBS 5 cameraman followed them.

A California Watch investigation found that school leaders, including Lacy Jr., receive taxpayer money based on the school’s claimed enrollment of 195 students, 61 of them identified as low-income children eligible for special federal funding. Former students and government inspections, however, indicate that the actual number of students attending is fewer than 30. An Oakland fire inspector determined the school’s classrooms can’t hold more than 58 people.

California Watch observed 15 students enter the school one morning last month, and only six the following morning.

Oakland Unified allocated $50,000 in federal funds this year based on the school’s enrollment figures and paid $173,500 during the previous four school years, according to information provided by the district. Most of the money has gone to Carrie Banks, a St. Andrew teacher who married the elder Lacy in 1999, and to Lacy Jr.

Several former students have said Lacy Jr. hit, kicked and threw objects at students. Lacy Jr.,known by students as Rev. Robert, has said he has no history of hitting children.

At the meeting, Catherine Joiner told the board that her son was once locked in a room as punishment at St. Andrew and fell two stories trying to climb out of the window to go to the bathroom. Her son, Charlos Stewart Jr., now 12, recounted a time he was robbed while asking for donations.

“I didn’t know what to do,” said the boy, who appeared nervous and at a loss for words.

“Someone robbed him and there wasn’t an adult (on) the present premises to even have seen it,” Joiner said. “That’s not OK.”

Board member Gallo said today that he has asked the superintendent to look into the larger question of how the district distributes federal funds to private schools and provide recommendations “on how we won’t let St. Andrew’s happen again,” he said.

Gallo said Oakland Unified used to issue the funds to third-party contractors, who in turn provide services to schools like St. Andrew, instead of letting the private schools pick who gets paid with the funds.

Federal law requires that consultants hired with the money be “independent of such private school and of any religious organization.”

William Nownes, Oakland Unified’s administrator of the private schools program, said in a previous interview that Lacy Jr. could be considered independent because he is not the principal and doesn’t have the ability to hire and fire employees.

“It’s been one of those areas where we’ve slipped,” Gallo said today. “We haven’t paid attention to it the way we used to.”

In the meeting, Marilyn Lawson told the board that St. Andrew officials kept her 5-year-old granddaughter at school until late in the evening while other students were sent out to ask for money at BART stations.

“I’d just really like to know what’s going to be done about this school,” she said, “because children are being exploited.”

Deborah Carney said her daughter witnessed physical abuse of children at St. Andrew when she attended a couple of years ago.

“We already know what’s happening,” she said. “We already know they’re pimping the kids.”

Board member Alice Spearman drew shouts from the crowd when she told the parents that other than looking at the funding, the district has limited options.

“I don’t know of anything I can do – it’s a non-public school,” she said. “Oakland Unified doesn’t have anything to do with opening or closing that school.”