May 25, 2011 10:11 AM
Natasha Lindstrom
Staff Writer

ADELANTO • As Adelanto Charter Academy loses its charter two years after opening, details are emerging about the school’s desperate shape and ties it had to locals caught up in what’s been called the largest corruption scandal in San Bernardino County history.

Last week the Adelanto School District revoked the charter of the small school that now has about 63 students at the former George Middle School on McCoy Circle, citing concerns over rampant charter and education code violations revealed in a November audit.

Day-to-day operations at the school were the responsibility of Principal Jennifer Ruiz, a former Hesperia assistant principal, and Professional Charter Management Inc., run by local developer John Dino DeFazio.

Ruiz asked her boyfriend of 18 months, Bill Postmus, former county assessor and 1st District supervisor, to help with the charter school project, Postmus said Tuesday by email.

“I agreed to do what any boyfriend would do and assist her where I could. Once we broke up, I ceased to talk with her and I moved on from her and everything associated with her,” Postmus wrote. “It saddens me to see the closure of this local charter school.”

Postmus pleaded guilty in March to three felonies for his role in a far-reaching bribery scandal centered around a $102 million settlement the county paid to private developer Colonies Partners LP. DeFazio, a personal friend and real estate partner of Postmus, is facing two felony perjury charges for allegedly lying to the grand jury about a political action committee prosecutors say was secretly controlled by Postmus and used to funnel a bribe from Colonies. Postmus faces up to five years in prison, and if convicted DeFazio faces up to four.

And while Adelanto’s first charter school crumbles, so have plans Postmus, Ruiz and DeFazio reportedly had to build a network of charter school programs across the country. The venture would have involved a parent company overseeing an educational firm that handled preparing charters for approval, along with potential real estate and financing arms.

“Once Ms. Ruiz and I broke up the entire plan was discontinued and we decided not to move forward with the potential project,” Postmus said by email.

DeFazio acknowledged a plan with Postmus involved opening charter programs outside of California, including Arizona, Florida and Idaho — but DeFazio stressed it had nothing to do with the now-embattled ACS.

When ACS opened in fall 2009, it had wide support from San Bernardino County and city officials and community leaders. The school aimed to serve low-income students struggling in traditional settings through character-building curriculum and after-school programs at the Boys and Girls Club of the Victor Valley. The original site was at the club, on Montezuma Street west of Highway 395.

In October 2009, the ACS Board of Directors entered into contracts with two of DeFazio’s companies, Professional Charter Management and Educational Development Inc., which combined were to receive 20 percent of the school’s revenue, school records show.

ED was hired to develop the school’s structure and boost enrollment, and DeFazio said it wasn’t intended to have a long-term contract. ED would be paid 5 percent of the school’s revenues.

“My whole thing was to help start it up to help the kids,” DeFazio said, having personally loaned the school about $40,000 for startup costs. He said most of that loan was repaid but overall he lost money on the project.

PCM was hired to perform the daily operations of the school, and DeFazio said he worked with consultants in Florida to help Ruiz. PCM would make 15 percent of the school’s revenues.

But a scathing audit conducted by the Adelanto School District in November found PCM wasn’t doing its job.

“The contract for services is not strictly enforced and even minimal administrative requirements are not being accomplished,” states a letter from ASD Superintendent Darin Brawley to the charter school, also noting the district had to step in to submit required data on students, staffing and special education.

The audit found the school was mired with fiscal mismanagement, shoddy record-keeping, hazardous food handling, overstaffing — at five teachers for 75 students — and more violations. The situation put both students and the district at risk, the audit found.

On Oct. 26 the ACS board fired Ruiz and terminated contracts with DeFazio’s companies. Requests to speak to the ACS board members, which now include William Flores, Helene Harris and Peter Lounsbury, went unreturned.

Ruiz denied any violations under her leadership.

“When I was there everything was in place. … For the current administration of Adelanto Charter Academy to project their current situation on me is completely unfounded,” Ruiz said by phone Monday. “It’s just unfortunate that this is where it’s come to and I wish them well.” She declined to comment further.

The district’s probe was triggered largely by a complaint filed by Jill Watson, human resources consultant and former Spring Valley Lake board member.

DeFazio had hired Watson around August to look into “rumors” the school wasn’t keeping proper records. She found no employees, including Ruiz, had fingerprint checks as required by state law and improper reporting of student records, daily attendance and employee files.

On Sept. 17 DeFazio fired Watson. She sent the district a letter about her findings five days later.

“(Watson) made accusations which ended up being true but she didn’t produce the documents …” DeFazio said. “I wanted the proof to see what she was doing wrong and I wasn’t going to act without proof.”

Both DeFazio and Ruiz said an independent audit, which wasn’t available as of Tuesday night, had found no major issues prior to the district’s report.

“On the surface when I went over there it looked really good,” DeFazio said. “Maybe as a management company I should have asked to see the actual fingerprints but I was told it looked good …”

Despite the violations, DeFazio said he thinks the students were getting a quality education. He noted Ruiz was well liked by parents and students, organized popular field trips and provided its poorest families with food, rent and utility help.

Hesperia Unified School District board member Anthony Riley was hired to boost enrollment and help the school expand into kindergarten and independent-study programs. He was paid $6,500 for five months of work through March 2010, but said to his knowledge Ruiz didn’t execute the plans.

During the school’s first year, Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Mark Sawyer made some concerning observations, such as students not having the books or materials they needed to do their homework. He was not able to get the school to pay for damage to the club’s equipment. The school moved to its new site near the former George Air Force Base for the 2010-11 year.

Peggy Baker, who was hired in November to help train teachers and improve special-education services, said she arrived to find a school unlike any she’d seen in her 30 years of teaching.

“It was a nightmare; there wasn’t even a telephone, no working computers … we had to construct everything from scratch,” Baker said.

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