LAUDERHILL, Fla. – The Paramount Charter School was, by all accounts, a disaster for its young students, but now that the publicly financed, F-graded K-8 school is closed, there is a big question that remains: Where did the money go?
In all, taxpayers coughed up more than $3 million for the charter school in Lauderhill, which promised a first-rate education for its predominantly financially disadvantaged students.
Now American Charter Development, the Utah-based charter school company that was Paramount’s landlord and primary investor, alleges it lost well over $1 million during the two years the school was in operation and suspects public funds were misappropriated.
"In our view, there's been fraud," Rob Giordano, senior vice president of business development at American Charter Development, told Local 10 News.
Giordano said the company conducted its own examination of the school's finances and found that, in addition to a nonprofit company that had been set up to run the school, called the Advancement of Education in Scholars Corp., there was a second for-profit company formed with an almost identical name.
Giordano said his firm obtained Paramount bank documents showing large sums of money going to the for-profit company.
"It was tens of thousands of dollars in excess of $30,000 a month going to this shell organization," Giordano said.
Giordano said the firm took what it found to the Broward County school board. A school board official confirmed receiving the complaint and said it was referred to the federal Office of Inspector General.
The president and founder of Paramount, Jimika Mason, resigned under pressure from American Charter Development in February.
But a lawsuit filed on behalf of the school alleges Mason attempted to retain control of the Paramount board and bank account by installing a "crony" on the board who was identified in the lawsuit as a romantic interest of her sister, Maia Williams, an alleged volunteer at the school who is also listed as an officer in the Paramount corporations.
The suit also alleges Mason of possible "misappropriation of funds."
The tug of war following Mason's resignation prompted SunTrust to freeze the school's bank account, which sources said had about $200,000 in it, causing further chaos at the school which included the termination of bus service; the cutting off of phones; and more than $100,000 owed to vendors, including nearly $50,000 for food, according to court records.
The school was in utter disarray, according to parents interviewed by Local 10 News, with profanity left scrawled on the walls, rats, and little learning for children at the F-graded school.
Yet, while the school was floundering, Mason was living in a mansion in Davie with a rent of $10,500 a month.
Her landlord filed for eviction against Mason in June, alleging she was owed more than $30,000 in back rent. When Local 10 investigative reporter visited the gated community, Mason refused to speak with him via a security guard.
She has since left the residence, which is now on the market for $1.55 million, according to the Zillow real estate website.
For former Paramount board member Brinda Weaver-Ingram, it doesn't add up. She said Mason put her on the board after she applied for a job at the school. She said she quickly realized the school was a "mess" and that Mason was deep in the red.
"She had no idea how she was going to pay them back the money or where she was going to get the money from," Weaver-Ingram said, adding that she left the board when she realized the depth of the problems.
Despite all the problems, administrators and teachers were able to keep it going through the end of the school year.
"We had children in that building," Giordano said. "That should have never happened at all."
The company, however, has a new tenant, Championship Academy, a charter school company with two well-performing schools in Broward, which is literally cleaning up the mess and is now enrolling students.