exclusive

New documents show what KIPP told Mike Feinberg leading up to his firing

An initial probe into an allegation of sexual abuse against the co-founder of the KIPP charter school network was “unable to confirm or substantiate” the claim, documents obtained by Chalkbeat show.

Just two months after that preliminary review into Mike Feinberg’s behavior, a new independent investigation was launched into the same allegation and two additional complaints of sexual harassment — a review that concluded in Feinberg’s firing in February.

The letters between KIPP Houston and Feinberg, obtained through a public records request,  shed new light on his high-profile firing, which shocked many in the charter school movement.

KIPP officials have in the past described the outcome of the first probe as inconclusive. One letter, though, said the matter was “closed” and any restrictions placed on Feinberg’s communication with students or school visits during the probe were then lifted (though he had not regularly worked in schools for a number of years). “KIPP and I consider this matter to be officially closed,” the letter concluded. “Mike, thank you for your professionalism and understanding while we investigated this matter.”

A subsequent letter said that “questions remained” after the initial inquiry and described both Feinberg and the alleged victim as “credible.”

Feinberg has denied all three claims made against him, and, through his attorney, Christopher Tritico, declined to comment for this story. In a brief interview with Chalkbeat Monday, Tritico said that the first investigation had “cleared” Feinberg and that his client had no opportunity to respond to the findings of the second investigation.

KIPP officials dispute Tritico’s characterizations of the investigations.

“KIPP terminated Mr. Feinberg earlier this year after an independent, outside investigation found credible evidence of abuse and harassment that was incompatible with KIPP’s values and unwavering commitment to student well-being,” said a spokesperson for the charter network. “At no point was he cleared.”

According to the letters, three allegations were made against Feinberg: one by a minor student in the late ‘90s and two by adult KIPP alumni who were also employees. One of the latter allegations resulted in a financial settlement by KIPP in 2004, according to the letters and KIPP’s public statements. The second investigation, the letter said, could not confirm the allegations but found them credible; that’s consistent with how KIPP has described the matter publicly

Chalkbeat also filed a public records request for the underlying investigations, but, at KIPP’s urging, the Texas attorney general recently ruled that that report is exempt from public disclosure under attorney–client privilege. KIPP has not made public further details about either investigation.

Last week, Chalkbeat reported that Feinberg has since started a new organization to help individuals, including KIPP alumni, create and grow schools.

KIPP sent Feinberg four letters over the course of nearly a year

The earliest letter that Chalkbeat received, dated April 21, 2017, said that an allegation of “sexual impropriety” had been made against Feinberg by a former student and promised “a full and thorough investigation.”

The brief letter also directed Feinberg not to have any contact with current or former KIPP students and not to visit a KIPP Houston school with children present, unless accompanied by someone from the network’s executive team.

The second letter, dated August 28, 2017, stated that the investigation, conducted by KIPP’s attorney, a partner at a Houston law firm, was complete and that the restrictions on Feinberg were lifted.

“Other than what the former student alleges, now almost 20 years after the alleged acts, there is no evidence of any wrongdoing,” wrote KIPP Houston superintendent Sehba Ali.

A 2009 photo of Feinberg (Via MerlinFTP Drop)

But the matter was soon reopened, as a November 6 letter, sent just two months later, shows. Except for the date, this letter is identical to the one opening the first probe — briefly stating the allegations and putting in place restrictions on Feinberg — and does not reference the previous letters or indicate why a new investigation was launched.

The last letter arrived on February 22, 2018, the same day Feinberg’s firing was publicly announced. Signed by KIPP Houston board chair Bill Boyar, the letter provided notice of Feinberg’s dismissal, saying, “Your actions are incompatible with the leadership qualities that are central to KIPP’s mission.”

The letter does not explicitly say why a second investigation was opened, but said that  “questions remained” after the first one.

It noted that the initial investigation was triggered by a KIPP Houston student who said that Feinberg engaged in “inappropriate sexual misconduct” with a family member two decades earlier. (Chalkbeat is withholding the precise relationship between the alleged victim and the student in order to protect their identities.)

The letter also claimed that Feinberg “repeatedly violated KIPP’s technology usage policies,” though it didn’t specify how.

In February, Tritico, Feinberg’s lawyer, told the New York Times that the initial investigation had found the allegations not to be credible. In fact, though, the most recent letter sent to Feinberg said the first investigation concluded that both he and the alleged victim were “credible.” (The second letter, closing that investigation, does not address this question.)

The rest of the final letter is in line with what KIPP has said publicly about Feinberg’s dismissal. The second investigation, the letter said, could not confirm the allegations but found them credible. “The evidence shows that, at a minimum, you put yourself in situations in which your conduct could be misconstrued,” Boyar wrote.

In a statement in February, Feinberg denied the claims that led to his firing. “I do not condone, nor have I ever condoned, or engaged in, misconduct of this kind,” he said.

New leader

District chief Joris Ray named Memphis schools’ interim leader

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Joris Ray, center, was appointed interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

Joris Ray, who started his 22-year career as a teacher in Memphis schools, will be the interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday evening to appoint Ray, who as a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet oversees the district’s academic operations and student support. An audience composed mostly of educators applauded the announcement.

“A lot of people call Dr. Ray, and he gets things done,” Hopson said at the meeting.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Dorsey Hopson and Joris Ray, right.

Ray could be at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for anywhere from 8 months to 18 months, as the board looks to hire a permanent leader, Board Chair Shante Avant said. Hopson is leaving the 200-school, 111,600-student district after nearly six years; he will lead an education initiative at the health insurer Cigna, effective Jan. 8.

Hopson will still help Ray transition into his new role a few weeks after his resignation takes effect because of his current contract terms.

Ray, a graduate of Whitehaven High School, said he intends to apply for the permanent position.

“I’m about pushing things forward. No sense in looking back,” told reporters Tuesday, noting that his goal, as he gets started, is “to listen, to get out to various community groups and transition with the superintendent … but also I want to talk to teachers and I want to talk to students because oftentimes they’re left out of the education process.”

The other two nominees to serve as interim superintendent were Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance, and Carol Johnson, a former superintendent of Memphis schools.

Hopson commended both Lin Johnson and Ray as “truly my brothers in this work.” He also acknowledged the work Carol Johnson has done in recent years to train teachers in her role as director of New Leaders in Memphis.

Some school board members wanted to preclude the interim appointee from applying for the permanent post — especially if the interim selection was an in-district hire — but a resolution formalizing that position failed in a 6-3 vote.

“If it were me… I’d think twice about going up against that person to take the job. I really would,” Teresa Jones, a board member, said. But she said she wants to create an environment “where individuals feel where they can come forward and apply” for the superintendent job.

The appointment comes one day after Hopson presented a plan to combine 28 aging school buildings into 10 new ones. Ray said he will look to get community input before pursuing the plan while he is at the helm.

“We need to continue to unpack the plan,” Ray said after the meeting. “And I rely on the community to get their input. But most of all, it’s what’s best for students.”

There’s more from the meeting in this Twitter thread:

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. One of the incoming members, representative-elect Bri Buentello of Pueblo, is currently a special education teacher. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City

Republicans:

Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:

Democrats:

Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village

Republicans:

Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument