January 17, 2012
Liars For Yahweh! How the Tikun Olam Charter School Got a $600,000 Federal Grant
By Chris Rodda
How a Jewish Charter school in New Jersey got approved for a federal grant despite numerous lies and misrepresentations on their grant contract.
Question: How does a charter school whose multiple applications have been riddled with lies and misrepresentations and has been rejected three times by a state education department get approved for a $600,000 grant from the federal government?
Answer: The federal government admittedly does not routinely fact-check grant applications for charter schools, and does not allow the private consultants it hires to look at the grant applications to look at any information other than what's in the grant application.
That's right, an applicant for a federal grant for a charter school can say whatever they want to in their application, true or false, and nothing they say will be questioned, even if their application has already been exposed as a work of fiction.
This is what's going on right now with the proposed Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School, and the epicenter of the fight to stop this school from being approved or getting any federal grant money is my own little town, Highland Park, NJ.
I got involved in the fight against this charter school about a year ago, when one neighbor sent another neighbor my way with a petition opposing the school -- a school that is overwhelmingly opposed by the residents of Highland Park, a town with an exceptional public school system and no need for a charter school of any kind, let alone one designed to provide a free religious education to a small number of students at the expense of our public school students.
Needless to say to anyone familiar with my work, I was immediately drawn in by the church/state separation issue of a religious charter school, and initially got involved for that reason, but as I soon found out, this went way beyond a simple church/state issue. The degree to which the founders of this proposed charter school have lied about all aspects of their school on their applications in their quest for approval is nothing short of astonishing.
Now, the founders of this Hebrew Language charter school, led by Highland Park real estate agent Sharon Akman, will insist that the purpose of their proposed school is not religious, and that it will not cater specifically to Jewish students. So, to give the appearance of this not being a specifically Jewish school, they claimed on their charter application that the location of the school would be a Catholic church, St. Mary of Mount Virgin in the neighboring town of New Brunswick. The problem? They lied about that -- one of the many whoppers they told in their application. They have no agreement whatsoever with this Catholic church, as Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski of the Diocese of Metuchen has repeatedly made clear.
On May 24, 2011, Bishop Bootkoski sent a letter to New Jersey's Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf, stating:
You'd think this flat denial by the bishop about her charter school having an agreement with this church would have made Ms. Akman change this piece of misinformation in the subsequent applications, right? Wrong! She proceeded to repeat this lie in both her application for her federal grant three months later, and her next (fourth) version of her application to the New Jersey Department of Education in October 2011, five months later.
When Bishop Bootkoski found out that Akman was continuing to use her fictitious agreement with the church, he wrote another letter to Cerf, dated December 14, 2011, again denying that any such agreement existed or would ever exist:
Now, you'd think that since providing documentation of a "lease, mortgage or title to its facility" is required to open a charter school, this little matter of Ms. Akman not having the facility she claims to have would have squashed her chances for approval, right? Wrong! Tikun Olam made it through the NJ Department of Education's first round of cuts in December, which left 17 of the 42 schools that applied in October (which was Akman's fourth try) in the running for approval.
But, as the New York Times reported last week, the lie about having secured this Catholic church as the location for their school was just one of many lies told by Akman and company, who also claimed to have the support of and/or agreements with quite a few other individuals and institutions that they didn't have the support of or agreements with. But, of course, with the federal government's prohibition on looking at any sources outside of the information provided by the grant applicant, none of the letters from these people and institutions denying that they supported the school could be taken into consideration when making the decision to approve a $600,000 grant to the school!
Akman also claimed in her application to have a relationship with the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, although the Associate General Counsel at Rutgers wrote the following e-mail on May 26, 2011 stating that the museum has no relationship with the school.
And yet, even after acknowledging in May that her charter school had no formal relationship with the museum, Akman has continued to claim, in both her October 2011 state application and her federal grant application, that the school has an established relationship with the museum.
Then there's the support that Akman claims from Assemblyman Peter Barnes and Jun Choi, a former mayor of Edison, another town that would be affected by her school. Akman claims in her application that Barnes and Choi "promised to help make connections and build a diverse student body." But both Barnes and Choi have made it clear that they do not support the school and never gave Akman any such promise of assistance. Neither did Heather Ngoma, the African-American Director of the New Jersey Charter School Resource Center, another alleged supporter claimed by Akman.
As the Times article said in reference to the federal policy of not allowing outside sources to be used in determining whether or not a charter school should get a federal grant:
Akman, who has made almost no public statements since the fight to stop her charter school began, declined to speak to the Times, but did give a rare statement to News12 New Jersey regarding her claims about the support of Assemblyman Barnes and former Edison mayor Choi, saying, "We're not misrepresenting anybody. If they subsequently changed their mind about it, that's a different thing. But we did not misrepresent them." Really? They flip-flopped? Is that Akman's explanation for the statements of non-support from the Bishop of Metuchen and the director's of the Zimmerli Art Museum too?
Other claims made by Akman include the alleged support of New Brunswick's predominantly Hispanic and black community, although no community survey has been done and the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., the Civic League of Greater New Brunswick, and the Puerto Rican Action Board all do not support the school; the crazy notion that a Hebrew school will appeal to low-income Muslims; and that the school will serve students with problems such as "poverty, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, academic failure, dropouts, gangs, and other challenges," as well as special needs students, all without even having as much as a single guidance counselor on its staff. As for its plans on how it will get qualified teachers and provide anything even close to the education available in our public schools, well those aren't really clear either, but the details of all of that pesky 'how on earth are these people going to provide anything like an adequate education?' stuff would require a whole other post.
In a nutshell, what we have is a small group of people who want to start a Jewish charter school for a small community of Jewish students but who need to make it appear that they are starting a secular school that will be chock full of students from every demographic in what is an extremely diverse area in terms of income, race, ethnicity, and religion. But nobody is buying that.
As Highland Park Rabbi Steven Miodownik wrote to acting Education Commissioner Cerf last spring:
But, what did those federal government consultants who aren't allowed to look at anything other than the information provided by the grant applicant base their approval on when it came to diversity and community support? Well, all they were allowed to base it on was Akman's answers to questions like the following on her grant application:
Right, there are "no weaknesses in addressing this application requirement," unless, of course, you consider the whole thing being a pack of lies to be a weakness!
While the $600,000 federal grant will only be received if the school is approved by the N.J. Department of Education, Ms. Akman wasted no time in informing the acting Education Commissioner that her grant had been approved, giving her school a potential leg up in the state's final decision, expected on January 17.
Finally, getting back to the church/state separation aspect of this Hebrew school, which is what got me involved in the first place, I have to include the ludicrous reason given by Akman in her effort to make her Tikun Olam Hebrew Language Charter High School sound like it has a necessary, secular purpose. Ready for this? Akman claims that the teaching of Hebrew is vital to America's national interests because the United States does so much business with Israel (even though the official business language of Israel is ... um .... English).
Last spring, I was part of what we called our "documentation committee," a committee formed to thoroughly examine the version of school's charter application that was current at that time. For my part on this committee, I did exactly what anyone familiar with my other work would expect me to do -- I checked out the sources cited by the school's founders to support their ridiculous 'teaching Hebrew is vital to our national interests' claim. And what I found, of course, was that they had misquoted and misrepresented the sources they cited to make them support their claim.
While the school's latest application has dropped parts of what was debunked in the previous application, this will give you an idea of the depths of scholarly deception -- on top of all their other deceptions -- that these Liars For Yahweh have stooped to in their attempt to get their school approved.
Ms. Akman and her cohorts should not only be flatly denied a charter to start their school, but should be prosecuted under Title 18, -1001 of the U.S. Code, the federal statute prohibiting the making of false statements to federal officials, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone who "knowingly and willfully makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation" or "makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry."
Additional resources: Mother Crusader, the blog of Highland Park resident Darcie Cimarusti, who since last spring has made it her full-time job to stop the Tikun Olam charter school; Speak Up Highland Park; and Save Our Schools NJ.
Authors Website: http://www.liarsforjesus.com
Chris Rodda is the Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), and the author of Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History.