As taxpayer dollars continue to flow to private schools through a state voucher program that does not include meaningful financial oversight, another North Carolina private voucher school is caught up in an embezzlement scandal.

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Tiffany Walker.

The former headmaster at Rutherfordton’s Trinity Christian School, Tiffany Walker, was indicted by a grand jury earlier this month on 137 counts of embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretenses while serving in her official capacity at the school.

From The Daily Courier:

Walker, 43, of Sheriff Huskey Drive in Forest City, accompanied by her attorney, Daniel Talbert of Shelby, came to the Rutherfordton Police Department Thursday to face 69 counts of embezzling money from a charitable or educational institution and 68 counts of obtaining property by false pretenses for the theft or misappropriation of over $134,973.82 of Trinity school’s funds.

According to press accounts, between July 2016 and December 2017 Walker wrote herself checks from the school’s bank account on a regular basis, totaling nearly $35,000. She also used school credit cards to make more than $100,000 in personal purchases.

Trinity Christian is a private school in western North Carolina that has participated in the state’s publicly funded Opportunity Scholarship Program since its inception. Between 2014 and 2018, the school has taken in $327,178 worth of scholarships, also known as school vouchers, that low-income families have received from the state to use toward private school tuition.

The school voucher program is promoted by advocates as a pathway toward improved academic achievement for poor students who are not succeeding in their local public schools. Vouchers enable some of these students to access private educational options; however, throughout its existence the program has faced criticism not only for lawmakers’ failure to ensure participating private schools employ high academic standards, but also the fact that there is little in the way of robust financial oversight for the millions of public dollars that are being funneled to privately managed schools.

Because Trinity Christian does not receive at least $300,000 on an annual basis in voucher funds, the school is not legally obligated to file a financial review with the state agency tasked with overseeing the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The headmaster’s fraudulent activity was only discovered when the school was undergoing an optional reaccreditation review process and began gathering documentation for a financial audit, according to Trinity Christian’s board chairman, Grant Deviney.

“Reaccreditation happens every five years for us, through the Association of Christian Schools International,” said Deviney, who only recently became board chair for the school. The process for submitting a financial audit during reaccreditation–which is not required of any private school in North Carolina, but Trinity Christian chooses to seek this designation–was crucial to revealing Walker’s fraudulent activity, Deviney said. He would not comment as to whether he believes the ongoing investigation will reveal additional funds or property were stolen under Walker’s tenure prior to 2016.

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If the name Trinity Christian School rings a bell, that’s because it’s also the name of the state’s largest voucher school located in Fayetteville – and that school, too, has been in the news over the past year and a half.

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Heath Vandevender.

In a Wake County courthouse last summer, Trinity Christian’s (Fayetteville) athletic director and high school teacher Heath Vandevender pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $400,000 in employee state tax withholdings over an eight year period while serving as payroll manager for the school.

Vandevender entered into a plea deal struck with the state that allowed him to serve three months in prison, pay a $45,000 fine and be placed under supervised probation for five years. He was also required to serve 100 hours of community service. Vandevender has already repaid the nearly $400,000 owed to the state that he embezzled.

Following his plea deal, Vandevender continued to work and coach at Trinity Christian (which is run by his father, Dennis) while serving his jail sentence on the weekends as part of a work release option. The school is home to one of the state’s top high school basketball programs and has produced high profile players like Joey Baker, who recently decided to graduate early to join the Duke Blue Devils, and Dennis Smith Jr., who spent just one year playing for NC State University before joining the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks.

Trinity Christian (Fayetteville) has received more than $2 million in school voucher funds since 2014 and continues to be the state’s top recipient of publicly-funded vouchers despite the revelation that public funds were embezzled by a school employee over nearly a decade. The flow of taxpayer dollars to the school has not stopped despite the fact that Vandevender, now a convicted felon who was responsible for the embezzlement, continues to teach and coach at the school. It’s not clear if he continues to manage payroll operations as well.

Remarkably, Vandevender’s fraudulent activity was not uncovered by way of oversight mechanisms required by the Opportunity Scholarship Program. As the state determined Trinity Christian to be eligible to participate in the program in 2014 and then began sending millions of public dollars to the school through scholarships awarded to low-income families, Vandevender was nearing the end of an eight year period of embezzling hundreds of thousands of employee payroll tax dollars, which only came to light thanks to an investigation by the state’s Department of Revenue.

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North Carolina places few requirements on private voucher schools to account for how the taxpayer dollars they receive are used to educate students.

While private voucher schools receiving more than $300,000 annually in taxpayer dollars must undergo a financial review that is then submitted to the state, that requirement only captures a very small percentage of the schools that currently receive public dollars. Last year only ten voucher schools out of more than 400 were subject to that requirement. And a financial review is not nearly as robust or revealing as a financial audit, which means fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars could still continue under the radar.

This indicates that the overwhelming majority of private voucher schools are free to spend public funds as they choose, out of the public eye.

Lawmakers could close this loophole by either requiring every private school that receives school vouchers to submit the results of a financial audit to the state, or requiring voucher schools to submit to what the state requires of every nonprofit that receives a minimum amount of public dollars, which includes meeting myriad reporting and compliance standards and ensuring financial records are available to be inspected by the NC State Auditor at any time.

Another option, which lawmakers proposed in a bill filed last year, would require all private voucher schools to be accredited. Achieving this status typically requires a rigorous review by an independent accrediting body that examines schools’ academic standards, governance processes and financial health. Many accrediting organizations require a financial audit as sufficient evidence of a school’s financial condition—and this process was the mechanism by which Rutherfordton’s Trinity Christian headmaster was caught embezzling.

Requiring accreditation for private voucher schools was a proposal that failed to move in the state legislature last year, and no accountability or transparency mechanisms intended to improve financial oversight for the school voucher program have moved during this year’s legislative session.

Sen. David Curtis (R-Gaston) was one of the sponsors of a bill filed last year to improve some accountability requirements for the school voucher program, although none related to financial oversight.

However, upon hearing of the embezzlement scandal at Fayetteville’s Trinity Christian, Senator Curtis committed to doing more to ensuring taxpayer dollars would be subject to more rigorous oversight by the state.

“If what you’re saying is entirely accurate,” Senator Curtis said last year about the financial concerns presented by the Trinity Christian (Fayetteville?) case, “we will look at tightening financial oversight. I’ll commit that to you,” he said.

But Curtis and his colleagues in the Senate have not, to date, passed any measures this legislative session that tighten financial oversight for the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Rep. Billy Richardson (D-Cumberland), is frustrated.

“With what we’re seeing in Cumberland County and elsewhere is that it’s evident that giving an unbridled release of monies to these schools without an audit and proper financial oversight is treading on very dangerous ground,” said Rep. Richardson.

“And here’s the rub — this is not stockholder money being embezzled, it’s taxpayer money,” said Richardson. “And it’s money that should be used to educate children. It’s a shame we’ve not put adequate oversight into the law to prevent this sort of thing from happening.”

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