Utah charter school's ties to Turkey draw scrutiny
This story was first published July 17, 2009
Holladay » When Principal Muhammet "Frank" Erdogan stocked the school library shelves, he agonized over whether to include the Koran alongside the Bible and other religious texts.
"I don't have the luxury to make a mistake here. I have to be careful all the time," Erdogan said of his by-the-book efforts to build Beehive Science & Technology Academy in Holladay.
Founded and financially supported by a group of Turkish-American scholars, Beehive advertises itself as a public charter school offering college-bound seventh through 12th graders a foundation in math and science. But a former teacher and a disaffected parent allege the school has another mission: to advance and promote certain Islamic beliefs.
They point to questionable financial transactions and hiring practices as proof of the school's covert ties to Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen. Their complaints have prodded an investigation by the Utah State Charter Board.
Gülen is a preacher, author and educator living in Pennsylvania. He is the founder and leader of the Gülen movement, an international network of schools. and in Turkey, some universities, businesses and television networks.
Some see Gülen as the modern, nonviolent face of Islam. He condemns terrorism and supports interfaith dialogue and scientific inquiry.
Transparency, or a lack of » In Turkey, however, the private nature of his network has aroused suspicion. Gülen was forced to leave Turkey in 1998 on charges that he was working to overthrow the secular government.
Intelligence and defense analysts at Jane's Information Group, which consults governments and businesses in the defense and aerospace, describe the grass-roots movement as a powerful "third force in Turkish politics."
Erdogan, a Muslim from Azerbaijan, said he supports Gülen's ideas, but wouldn't describe himself as a "follower."
Many of Beehive's teachers and founders also support Gülen's ideals," acknowledged Erodgan. But he said there's no formal tie.
Erdogan said Beehive is not affiliated with any religious group and is funded with state dollars and private donations. He says he's being unfairly "attacked" and fears for his school's future.
Amid the allegations, two of the school's 224 students have left, he says. And he's lost three of his 20 teachers, though he suspects this has more to do with budget cuts.
Not unlike other public charter schools in Utah, Beehive struggles financially.
The school has steadily grown since it's inception in August 2005 and that means more state funding, which is awarded on a per-student basis. Its budget now exceeds $1 million.
Backers and detractors » But the school is losing money. With growth comes the need for more teachers and classroom space. The old office building the school occupies isn't ideal and needs renovation. There is no gymnasium nor auditorium. The building could use new carpet and fresh coat of paint.
Backed by a loyal group of parents, Beehive has managed to survive.
"I feel like my son is getting an incredible education. That's what I want, for him to walk out of that school with a little bit of an edge to see him through college," said Marie Jess, the parent representative on Beehive's school board.
But there's been dissension among parents.
Jess replaced Kelly Wayment, a parent of three Beehive students and once a staunch supporter. Wayment was removed from the board this spring after he e-mailed other parents about his concerns that Beehive might belong to the Fethullah Gülen movement. He was threatened with legal action and accused of using his seat on the board for "sectarian purposes," suggesting he was anti-Islam.
But Wayment contends he never suggested ties to terrorism nor Islamic extremists. He says he harbors no ill will against Muslims and has been with Beehive from the beginning, dined at teachers' homes and has traveled with the school to Europe and Turkey. His primary concern is lack of transparency. Even as a board member, he says he felt "out of the loop" and was often was the lone dissenting vote on spending decisions he found irresponsible.
"I was trying to promote discussion and give parents the opportunity to look into this for themselves," said Wayment. "I believe as parents we have a right to know everything about the schools we send our kids to and the schools have a responsibility to disclose any and all affiliations."
Church and state » The constitutional requirement of government-church separation looms large in predominantly Mormon Utah, where more than one charter school has asked prospective students to include their baptismal dates on enrollment applications. State education officials also pondered one charter school's renting of space at an LDS seminary.
Although free from regulations that bind traditional public schools, charter schools are still tuition-free, tax-funded public schools. That means they must be nonsectarian, neither promoting nor denigrating religion.
No one alleges Islam is being taught at Beehive. The old office building that the school rents is owned by a limited liability corporation registered to a Park City man. There are no religious symbols displayed, no school prayer.
And absent proof of more direct ties, charter board chairman Brian Allen will limit his probe to matters of finance, student performance and employment practices.
"I don't care if the school's founders are Catholic, Hare Krishnas or belong to the Church of NFL Football," said Allen. "What they can't do is allow that philosophy to spill over into the classroom."
The teachers » Wayment and a former teacher, however, argue there has been spillover.
Adam Kuntz, a first-year history teacher at Beehive, was fired this spring, he alleges, for taking academic freedom concerns to the state board.
Earlier in the school year, Kuntz had a run-in with Erdogan over a lesson plan on World War II and the Holocaust. Erdogan wanted Kuntz to revise the plan and during a tape-recorded meeting, questioned conventional accounts of the genocide.
A copy of that recording was sent to state education officials. Shortly after, Kuntz was fired.
"[Erdogan] didn't say why I was being fired, but he made light of the recording the day of my termination," said Kuntz.
Erdogan contends Kuntz was fired for "performance reasons" and notes the teacher did, in fact, teach the Holocaust with no interference by the administration.
But Wayment said Kuntz's firing is an example of capricious and discriminatory employment practices at the school. Wayment says employee turnover is high and teachers are often recruited from other charter schools which he believes are part of a larger network.
These recruits tend to be from Turkey and central Asian republics living here on work visas, he says, and they're often promoted above teachers with more experience and tenure, Wayment adds.
Erdogan denies any favoritism in hiring.
The balance sheet » Tax filings show the school is being propped up with personal loans, which the charter board is examining.
"I'm not sure the transactions are illegal," said Allen. "How the money is spent will probably determine that."
In 2007, Beehive received a $61,000 loan from Murat Biyik, who at the time was the school's vice principal. The loan was equivalent to Biyik's salary. Biyik is now principal at Magnolia Science Academy in Hollywood, Calif., part of a chain of charter schools once overseen by Erdogan.
And the foundation overseeing the Magnolia schools is home to another Beehive benefactor, Mustafa Keskin. Keskin is secretary of the foundation and loaned Beehive $49,000.
Other loans to Beehive include $20,000 from Buyamin Karaduman, and $30,000 from Suleyman Bahceci, who both work for the Accord Institute in Tustin, Calif. The institute contracts with Beehive on curriculum design and performs teacher evaluations for the school.
The institute also contracts with Magnolia Science Academy and charter schools in Nevada and Arizona.
Erdogan refers to the lenders as "friends" and says they have been repaid or soon will be.
Allen says he is treading carefully.
"So far the only evidence I've seen of religious ties is circumstantial," he said. "If this is a good school, I don't want to close them. I want to help them succeed."
Jess remains loyal to Beehive. She looked into allegations, even phoning the FBI.
"Am I to believe this movement is so patient that they're silently sinking into our country? To do what? Take over?" she said. "I don't think so."
Beehive Science & Technology Academy isn't the only public charter school with Turkish-American roots to come under scrutiny.
In 2006, Washington, D.C.-area charter school Chesapeake Science Point was closed and its director Jon Omural dismissed amid mounting problems at the school. Chesapeake was founded by Turkish-American scholars and half its teaching staff were Turkish-American men, according to a March 30, 2006, article in The Washington Post.
Three female teachers at the school accused Omural of "denying them access to the Internet and of treating them as if they were of an inferior sex," the article states.
More recently in Minnesota, the local ACLU chapter sued Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) for using public funds for religious purposes. The lawsuit also names the Minnesota Department of Education for "failure to provide adequate oversight."
Charles Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU, said it was only after the ACLU discovered TIZA leases its campuses from the Muslim American Society and a mosque that the civil rights organization got involved.