CLEVELAND - An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation revealed a federal probe into Ohio charter schools involving a money trail of illegal immigration fees, as well as other payments to individuals living overseas.
Concept Schools operate 16 Horizon Science Science Academies across Ohio. One of its schools in Cleveland was recently named a U.S. Department of Education "Blue Ribbon" school for excellence in education.
The program was founded in Cleveland by Turkish educators in 1999 and now includes schools in Ohio and four other states.
"Our schools are public charter schools. They're not Turkish schools, they're not Islamic schools. They provide a high quality education," said Salim Ucan, Vice President of Concept Schools.
Yet, the U.S. Department of Labor opened an ongoing investigation into a Cleveland school in 2008 that involves the use of H1-B visas issued by the U.S. government to foreign workers if they provide "specialized services" in the United States.
Federal investigators asked Horizon Science Academy Denison, in Cleveland, for all its H1-B visa documentation. U.S. Immigration records showed 53 H-1B visas were issued to Horizon Schools statewide in 2008 and 2009.
Our investigation also reviewed 10 years of financial audits performed by state auditors.
Auditors found immigration fees and legal fees for school officials' families and others living in Turkey. In some cases, auditors found payments were made to individuals who were never employed by any of the schools.
Auditors found 19 Turkish immigrants were paid nearly $13,000 for what they called "illegal immigration fees." Ucan said the schools began recruiting foreign teachers out of necessity.
"We've done everything we could have done to find high quality teachers," Ucan said.
But according to Ucan, math and science teachers remained difficult to find. Ten years ago, as many as one in four came from Turkey.
"That number went down to 8.5 percent this year," Ucan said. "Only 51 teachers out of 596 are international teachers and most of them are Turkish, but not all of them are Turkish."
But the Turkish connection extends beyond salaries.
When the Horizon Science Academy on Marginal Road in Cleveland was launched in 2002, it received a $36,000 loan from a former board member living in Turkey. Auditors found it was repaid through a series of international wire transfers.
"First, this is a non-interest bearing loan," Ucan said. "So someone living in a foreign country doesn't make any money off it."
But more of your tax dollars are headed to Turkey today.
A Horizon Science Academy school in Dayton signed a lease agreement that sends $600,000 over five years to the property's owner living in Turkey. The practice of spending Ohio school tax dollars overseas is raising concerns among leaders of an Ohio teachers union.
"When we know that Ohioans need jobs, why would my taxpayer dollars be paying foreign nationals," said Sue Taylor with the Ohio Federation of Teachers. "And why would Ohio tax dollars be spend to companies located in foreign lands."
Concept Schools insists it tried to find investors and teacher here in Ohio and could not. Horizon Science schools receive substantial financial assistance through public tax dollars.
Last year, the schools received more than $27 million in public funds, including federal stimulus money aimed at putting Americans back to work.
In the wake of our investigation, Concept Schools have now fully repaid all illegal immigration and legal fees cited by state auditors for its Cleveland and Toledo schools. Similar fees for its Columbus school remain unpaid, but Concept School officials said they will repay those funds as well.
Concept Schools had previously argued to state auditors that those fees were legal expenses, similar to moving expenses.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Attorney General's Office, which is charged with collection of unpaid fees, confirmed that Concept Schools resolved the unpaid funds just hours before our investigation aired.