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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A parish school in California profited off a controversial and potentially illegal school program, which led to an investigation for fraud. The parish is led by Msgr. Craig Harrison, a priest under investigation for multiple allegations of homosexual abuse.
A priest of the diocese of Fresno, Harrison was placed on leave in May after at least half a dozen men stepped forward accusing him of abuse when they were teens. Three police departments along with the diocese have conducted investigations into the allegations.
Not reported among the current stories is Harrison's 2017 participation in a public school enrollment program that may have defrauded taxpayers of millions of dollars.
In September 2017, Los Angeles County education officials launched an investigation into the Lennox School District, which was offering money and free laptops to private Catholic schools in exchange for enrolling their students in Lennox's online academy. The plan allowed students to be enrolled full-time in two schools, private and public, gaining the Lennox School District millions of dollars from the government, while Catholic schools also cashed in.
Public school money is based in part on the number of students enrolled. Through Lennox's dual enrollment program, the district was able to count 400 more students than before — a financial gain of approximately $3 million.
Harrison's parish school, St. Francis, had about 160 students enrolled in the fifth through eighth grades during the 2017–18 school year. With mandatory enrollment at Lennox Virtual Academy, and $165 paid by the district to St. Francis per enrolled student, that would've resulted in a gain of about $26,000 for the school, plus 160 free computers.
Saint Francis was the only school in the Fresno diocese that took part, with Harrison's express approval; the other Fresno parishes refused to join because of hesitation over its legality, according to sources. Three other Catholic schools — St. Joseph School and St. John Chrysostom Catholic School in the archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Resurrection Academy in the diocese of San Bernardino — also participated.
The program was so controversial it led to an exodus of parents and a couple teachers from St. Francis, where they believed their concerns were being dismissed by Harrison, who insisted the plan was legal and already vetted by the diocese (then headed by Bp. Armando Ochoa).
But critics claim the partnership with Lennox was Harrison's way of shoring up finances at a school that had been losing both students and teachers for several years. Inside sources confirm that even before partnering with Lennox, teachers at St. Francis were unhappy with the priest's heavyhanded administration and school politics, his intimidation and rudeness, as well as the appearance of his currying favor with wealthy parents.
Two teachers quit the school in protest over what they believed to be an illegal scheme. It was a St. Francis parent, Katie Rivera, who first reported the scheme to education officials.
Rivera's suspicions were raised when her child brought home paperwork requiring parents to give financial and other information to the local public school district as part of a new enrollment program.
"This partnership is expected to bring many benefits for St. Francis students," wrote Principal Kelli Gruszka to parents. "[It] is IMPERATIVE that every family with students in grades 5th-8th, return the paperwork being sent home today ... ."
"It had red flags all over it," Rivera, an attorney, told the L.A. Times in 2017, noting the program's mandatory nature and the double enrollment: "all of our students in 5th-8th grade will need to be co-enrolled at both schools."
Rivera began asking the school questions, and the school said it was taking advantage of a legal "loophole." Rivera refused to sign the forms.
Church Militant spoke with Rivera, who confirmed that, "after talking with other parents who spoke to the school and Monsignor," she refused to take part in the plan and instead had her documents forwarded to L.A. County education officials.
The program's only requirement was that students log in to the virtual academy for two hours per day. Evidence showed, however, that students were failing to log in or do the required coursework — yet Harrison's parish continued to benefit financially.
"Several St. Francis teachers and parents said in interviews that the school barely used the Acellus lessons," according to the L.A. Times. "Although it was receiving money from Lennox, St. Francis proceeded as it always had, charging tuition and teaching its own religion-imbued curriculum."
The infrequent logins caused the principal to email teachers insisting they use the virtual classes more often or else the school risked losing government money.
"[It] is imperative that we use this program more," wrote Gruzska in an April 28, 2017 email. "We just received our second check from the lennox school district [sic] and we will be at risk to return it if progress is not made."
While the L.A. archdiocese, concerned about the legality of the program, quit the partnership after a year and returned the laptops, Harrison's school announced in August 2017 it would continue with the program for another year — only to drop it after media contacted St. Francis with questions.
In addition to the $3 million gained by the Lennox School District, reports revealed that a consulting firm, School Management Solutions, earned $666,820 of government money for managing the online program.
In response to the L.A. Times report and complaints from parents, county education officials, with help from the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, began a financial audit of the school district in September 2017.
"The audit will examine the fiscal and legal issues raised by the academy's relationship with parochial schools," said Margo Minecki, spokeswoman for L.A. County's Office of Education, at the time.
The audit was never completed, as the Lennox School District shut down the dual enrollment program in 2018.
"I can't tell you definitely the county forced the district to end the program," said School Superintendent Nick Salerno to media earlier this year. "Obviously, it was either that or they came to an agreement. They just kept telling me it was legally a gray area."
In a strange twist, the superintendent who oversaw the dual enrollment program killed himself after he was outed as an alleged homosexual predator.
Kent Taylor was found dead in his home on June 9 this year, two months after Davon Dean, an employee at the district, accused him of sexual harassment and abuse. Taylor was married with three children.
In Dean's nine-page letter submitted to the district, he claims he was subjected to repeated sexual touching and groping by Taylor, including masturbation, as a condition of his employment at the school district.
Taylor had apparently acquired the position for Dean, who served as the district's spokesman, and who was the one who fielded media queries in 2017 about the controversial dual enrollment plan spearheaded by Taylor.
Like Taylor, Harrison has also been accused of homosexual predation, although his situation involves at least half a dozen male accusers. Harrison remains under investigation by the Fresno diocese as well as the Firebaugh Police Department, while the Merced and Bakersfield police have closed their investigations.
The Merced Police Department forwarded its findings to the local prosecutor, who is reviewing the evidence to determine whether to press charges for sex abuse. The Bakersfield Police Department claimed it was unable to substantiate the allegations, but critics have slammed the criminal probe as a sham investigation that ignored 95% of witnesses.
Similar dual enrollment programs in other cities have resulted in indictments for fraud and misappropriation of public funds.
A California charter school scheme based in San Diego resulted in criminal prosecution for its practice of inflating student numbers, among other things, by dual-enrolling students already attending private schools, thereby gaining millions of dollars of government money.
The 235-page indictment against the founders of A3 Charter Schools notes that the scheme involved paying the private schools between $1,000–$2,000 per enrolled student while the charter school pocketed the rest — the same payment scheme involved in the St. Francis-Lennox School District partnership.
Epic, an online school in Oklahoma, is currently being investigated by state and federal officials for defrauding taxpayers of $113 million through a dual enrollment program that counted as students those already enrolled full-time in private schools.
Paris Academy, an online school based in Saginaw, Michigan, was forced to shut its doors last year after law enforcement started looking into allegations that the school was enrolling students who never actually took courses.
"Based on those fraudulent numbers, they received an awful lot of money for students that never attended the academy," said Michigan State Police Lt. David Kaiser.
Church Militant asked Harrison, through his attorney, how much money St. Francis School received from the dual-enrollment program and why he approved his school's participation in the controversial program, but received no response.