Just a month into classes in its brand-new building, Macon Charter Academy tumbled into probation.
But numerous deficiencies that a state probation letter highlighted weren't the first signs of trouble for the new school.
A Telegraph investigation found that education officials with the Bibb County school district, as well as the state Department of Education, were warned about the charter school's vulnerability by members of the school's founding board of directors more than a year before the school was built.
Many problems can be traced to disputes between that board and the school's co-founders, Charles and Monya Rutland, based on interviews with more than a dozen people familiar with MCA's origins, as well as documents and copies of emails between education officials that The Telegraph obtained through the state's Open Records Act.
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Some of the people The Telegraph interviewed asked not to be named, citing fear of retaliation.
Before Macon Charter Academy, the Rutlands had tried -- and failed -- to establish another charter school.
At Macon Charter Academy, there's been frequent turnover in board membership, in part because some board members said they could not trust the Rutlands. That turnover, those involved with the school said, has throttled leadership there.
Court records show that the Rutlands have had trouble maintaining a successful business over the years. Those records include a history of bankruptcy filings, property foreclosures and civil suits against them.
The Rutlands declined interviews for this story, saying that The Telegraph has not been fair in its reporting on the school.
From the initial planning stages to Macon Charter Academy's approval by the Bibb County school board in 2013, it took about five years before the Rutlands' charter school project put students in seats.
The Rutlands' vision for their charter school began in 2010 as the Macon Academy of Excellence, which they planned to open in August 2011 with about 450 students. That plan fizzled, though.
The school received local and state approval twice, in 2010, then again in 2011. Ultimately, the Bibb County school board decided to terminate the school's charter in December 2011, citing issues with the school's organization and curriculum.
In 2012, Monya Rutland told The Telegraph she was disappointed, but said she was not part of the academy's board at that time. She had left by early 2011 to make way for a new founding board.
By the time the idea for Macon Charter Academy emerged in 2013, the Bibb school board was already considering another charter school application -- from the Academy for Classical Education in north Bibb County.
Steve Smith, then the interim Bibb County school superintendent, said ACE's application was stellar -- "first place" -- while MCA's application had to be sent back.
"We didn't feel like it was adequate when it came to us," he said in a recent interview.
From the school's proposed curriculum to its organizational structure, MCA's application for its charter, or the contract it would operate under, needed work.
"If I'm not mistaken, it took a couple of months for Macon Charter Academy's application to get to the point where it was ready to submit for approval," Smith said.
The Bibb school board voted to approve the charter petitions from both the Academy for Classical Education and Macon Charter Academy in September 2013.
Asked why he thought the school board ultimately approved MCA, given its initial struggles, Smith said, "I think there were a lot of political concerns there because we were given both charters to vote on at the same time."
Some people believed that ACE, a charter school with a predominantly white student population, would not be approved unless MCA, which has a predominantly black student population, was also approved.
Another possible cause for concern for MCA came the next year. The school had said it planned to open its doors by August 2014, at the same time ACE did.
That timeline did not pan out, however, because of a reported lack of organization -- and the fact that just months before MCA was scheduled to open, it still needed to hire more faculty and staff, according to two people involved with those efforts.
Despite the causes for concern, neither local nor state education officials made any attempts to monitor MCA, according to emails between education officials and the charter school's founding board.
'TRUST ISSUES' SURFACE
During the first half of 2014, MCA's board of directors scheduled board governance training with the Georgia Charter Schools Association to prepare for their duties.
The association sent a representative to lead the training. The trainer told board members that they -- not the Rutlands, whose role had now changed to consultants -- were responsible for and had final say over school operations.
That pronouncement in particular prompted a clash between the founding board members and the Rutlands.
After that training, MCA's board members tried to gain control over MCA's financial affairs, from bank accounts to contract approvals, that were in the Rutlands' hands.
Lou Erste, an associate state superintendent of charter schools, chalked up the rift to miscommunication.
In a July 2014 email from Erste to Mary Lou Ezell, then the MCA board chairwoman, Erste wrote that MCA board members "may have misunderstood some of the statements" that the charter school association trainer made.
He further explained that HighMark School Development would not provide the start-up funds the school needed unless Charles Rutland was "part of the team."
Essentially, there was no funding without the Rutlands. And there would be no charter school without the more than $8 million in funding that HighMark planned to provide.
Erste added, "In fact, the Rutlands involvement in the creation of MCA and the progress it had made to date was one of the reasons we recommended state board of education approval" of the charter.
The Rutlands' involvement, according to Erste, was a "very good thing."
Erste urged board members to re-establish their trust with the Rutlands, and he suggested that it was time for the founding board to "complete the transformation" to the permanent governing board so that MCA could move forward.
"That way, those founding board members that cannot find their way to rebuilding their trust in the Rutlands can rotate off the board and be replaced by new board members who do not have that baggage," Erste wrote.
He added that if the MCA board "does its job properly and governs as it should, there should be no concerns about working with any particular consultant," since the board would "trust but verify."
Over the next few months, though, trust issues between the board and the Rutlands only grew worse.
Several attempts the board made to verify details of the Rutlands' consulting operations resulted in frustration, according to board records.
On Oct. 25, 2014, the MCA board submitted a "corrective action" plan to local and state education officials.
Under a section titled "Consultants," the MCA board wrote that it was "unified in having concerns about transparency of the consultants with the board."
Board members described an atmosphere of "combative behavior" from the Rutlands and a refusal to submit "documentation of business contracts and the status of the business being done" to the board.
"The other matter that is most troublesome is that when reports are given (by the Rutlands), conversations ... are stated as absolute, but there is no written documentation to confirm what is to be delivered or proposed," the board wrote.
Charles Rutland, according to the board, "did not see why the board needed this information."
The board wrote that it "would have verified if the consultants had been forthcoming with pertinent information ... which was requested repeatedly."
The board went on to say, "Distrust developed because the board realized that withholding information was deliberate."
In a later paragraph, the board complained about a lack of transparency regarding a handful of items and also wrote that the Rutlands' claim that MCA had "800 pre-enrollment applications" was "just not true."
"The point of this paragraph," the board wrote, "is to show that all of us need to 'trust then verify'. ... This board has tried to hold (Charles Rutland) responsible with little to no cooperation. ... The Rutlands must be accountable to the board and committed to transparency."
Board members wrote that they had never maligned either of the Rutlands, but nevertheless found themselves "being portrayed as dysfunctional and inept."
Throughout MCA's creation, Smith, the system's former interim superintendent, said the school district met with the Rutlands -- and different board members -- three or four times.
"But every time there would be somewhat of a different group that would come," he said in a recent interview. "That was kind of a problem because there wasn't that continuity of leadership."
Smith said he remembers that the Rutlands sometimes brought in "proven educational administrators," but that wasn't always the case.
He said he felt at the time that they would face some "serious challenges" down the road.
The founding MCA board members who had trust issues ultimately left, but one person who stayed on through the transition was Henry Viloria.
"Since I was the treasurer, I was concerned about everything that related to funding," he said, adding that he wanted to account for "every nickel and dime."
When he looked at the Rutlands' budget for the school, he said salaries were lower than he expected.
"The numbers that they created were not created based on someone who was in education," Viloria said.
He said he asked a lot of questions about the finances.
"When you start asking so many financial questions, you'll get yourself in trouble," he said.
He said he would have been the one to block the charter school's funding because of all the questions he was asking. But he eventually resigned from his position.
He said he thinks his disagreements with the founders played a role in moving him "off to pasture."
"I think Charles may have wanted me to get off the board because he probably thought that I would ask so many questions as we moved forward," he said.
BUSINESS TRACK RECORD
Before getting into the education business, the Rutlands ran a Macon HomeVestors franchise, Professional Realty Group, that advertised and sold Macon properties for as little as $10,000 to landlords across the country.
Clients would often hire the Rutlands' sister company, Professional Management Group, to provide renovation and management services for the properties upon purchase of the homes.
The Telegraph previously reported in 2008, however, that problems developed.
Complaints from absentee landlords contended that the Rutlands sometimes failed to complete renovations, pass along rent payments to them or take proper care of their houses.
The Rutlands had explanations for many of the investor complaints. They said investors were happy with PMG until housing markets tanked during the subprime mortgage debacle. In many cases, they said, higher mortgages made it tougher for landlords to afford repairs and improvements at their rental properties.
One investor, Steve Bumbaugh of Chicago, eventually filed suit, alleging that the Rutlands intentionally misappropriated $28,100 that Bumbaugh had given them for renovations.
In September 2008, a Bibb County Superior Court judge awarded Bumbaugh $15,000 in the case.
In 2012, Monya Rutland filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, and the $15,000 debt owed to Bumbaugh was written off -- along with an additional $166,000 in debt (a total of $181,000) she owed to banks, credit card companies and debt collection agencies, according to bankruptcy court records.
Bibb County Superior Court records also show that Monya Rutland underwent four separate foreclosure sales related to Professional Realty Group properties in 2010.
She also tried to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in July and again in October 2014 to set aside another $212,147 in combined debt owed to SunTrust Mortgage, South Carolina Educational Assistance and the U.S. Department of Education.
The court dismissed each of those 2014 bankruptcy filings less than a month later for failure to provide adequate documentation.
'THEY CAN'T AFFORD IT'
From the beginning, the Rutlands wove themselves into every facet of Macon Charter Academy's dealings -- from Monya Rutland's earning a commission as a broker on the property purchased to build the school on, to Charles Rutland's overseeing the school's banking accounts.
"Intentionally or not, the Rutlands set themselves up as the people who operate this school and control it, and it should've never been that way," Tony Roberts, chief executive officer of the charter schools association, told The Telegraph recently.
All decisions -- and final authority -- relating to the operations of a charter school should reside with the board of directors, Roberts said.
As soon as the school was on track to receive state education funding, the Rutlands submitted a contract proposal to provide consulting services to MCA, charging 5 percent of the school's gross income -- a total of $210,600 per year, based on enrollment at the time.
"Five percent of the school's income at this critical time is detrimental to the success of the school," Roberts said. "They can't afford it."
Charter schools often fail, Roberts said, for financial reasons, not academic.
He added that a large school management organization, such as Sabis, will actually put money into the operations of a start-up school because it knows that times are tight during the first year.
"If you talk to management companies, you'll find out that most of them don't make any money until about the third year because the school doesn't make any money to take," he said.
Roberts called the Rutlands' $200,000 request "excessive," adding that Macon Charter Academy is beyond the management of two people.
"The Rutlands are not a management company," he said "They don't have, in my opinion, the resources that are needed to back up this school during this time of low income."
Jose Afonso, business development director for Sabis, said it's "impossible" for two people to offer the kind of services an established management company could offer.
Afonso said the Rutlands approached Sabis four or five years ago seeking collaboration with the management company.
"After we evaluated the situation, we decided against it," he said.
CHARTER SCHOOL OVERSIGHT
For a locally approved charter school such as Macon Charter Academy, the application process starts with the local board of education.
From there, it goes to the state Department of Education for review and a recommendation to the state school board. If approved by the state board, it can become a charter school.
Once it's approved, the charter school's board of directors is supposed to take charge of the school -- with accountability to local and state education officials.
In the case of MCA, however, the Rutlands were holding the purse strings -- controlling the school's bank accounts, contracts and financial affairs.
Some of MCA's founding board members said they tried to bring concerns about how the Rutlands were operating the business to Erste's attention, but they said Erste dismissed many of them.
The Telegraph asked Erste via email why, after all the issues with the Rutlands brought to his attention, he would suggest to the board to continue to "trust but verify" with the Rutlands.
"In the case of the MCA founders, it appears that people in Macon either trust (the Rutlands) completely or do not trust them at all, with no middle ground," he wrote back.
"The original founding board of MCA and the Bibb County BOE trusted the founders enough to approve their involvement in the charter school as founders," he wrote, adding, "It is the primary responsibility of the local district to ensure that the names put forth as part of a charter petition are, in fact, trustworthy people."
Smith, the former interim school superintendent, said his job was to make sure the charter application could pass muster, but he added that he had concerns that the Rutlands were involved in the process from the very beginning.
"If you'll go back and look at the past, (the Rutlands) have had two or three failed attempts at establishing charter or private schools," he said.
Several people who had been on MCA's board at one time or another shared with Smith that they had concerns that the Rutlands' motivations for starting a charter school were not wholly altruistic.
Some of them said that in their opinion, the Rutlands saw the school more as a money-making opportunity.
"There's no question about that," Smith said. "It was a valid concern among their board members."
That concern, in part, prompted the lack of trust between some board members and the Rutlands, Smith said.
But in an email to The Telegraph, Erste characterized MCA's founding board as "largely inexperienced," with a "mix of weak and strong members, and many could not stay on the board long term."
The "paralysis" of MCA's board, he explained, "threatened financing of the school construction."
"It was at this point -- the point at which the future of the school was at risk -- that GaDOE provided guidance to the MCA governing board that it either choose to 'trust and verify' with the founders as managers or give up the charter so others could have a chance to establish a charter school within the community MCA sought to serve," Erste said.
The MCA board shifted to a group of people who had no past knowledge of the Rutlands' history. And that board ended up agreeing to the financing deal with Highmark School Development.
Now that "governance paralysis appeared to be broken," Erste wrote, "building demolition and construction could begin."
'HOPE' FOR MCA'S FUTURE
The state Department of Education, Erste said, was not involved with Macon Charter Academy again until it put the school on probation in September following a report in The Telegraph. The newspaper had covered a board meeting in which parents and employees aired blistering complaints about the school's operations, from academics to school discipline.
Since that meeting, the school's enrollment has dropped by more than 100 students, according to the school district's enrollment count.
Erste said, though, "We are confident that the new MCA governing board is on the path to resolving the issues enumerated in the probation letter we sent, especially now that it is working with the Georgia Charter Schools Association to complete risk analyses and corrective action plan we requested in the probation letter."
Roberts, the chief executive of that association, recently told The Telegraph that he sees "a lot of hope" for MCA's immediate future at this point.
But there is still discord within the MCA community -- some who trust the Rutlands and don't trust the board, as well as others who trust the board and don't trust the Rutlands.
On Oct. 20, the MCA board approved a proposal that would sever the school's ties with the Rutlands, giving them a $12,000 payout in the process.
The Rutlands have yet to sign it, though, and the board may be preparing for a legal battle.
After the board voted on the severance agreement, one MCA parent told The Telegraph about a petition to oust board members.
But that would be detrimental to the school, Roberts said.
"If the board that is there right now is made to resign, then we will not assist the school because, to me, that would be a sign that the wrong things are happening," he said.
After a recent meeting with board members, Roberts is convinced that their hearts are in the right place, and any move made to remove them would cause him to report to Bibb school officials -- and Erste -- that "the school cannot be helped."
In the coming weeks, the charter school group will be working with the school on its improvement plan to address the concerns listed in MCA's probation letter.
"Once that work is done," Erste wrote, "we will consider the proposed plan and provide feedback to the governing board."
Information from the Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer David Schick, find him on Twitter @davidcschick.