A recent report that a basketball coach in North Carolina was busy evaluating overseas players isn’t all that unusual. Professional teams do it all the time. But this wasn’t the head of an NBA team or even a major college program.
This coach recruiting players abroad is at a charter school in Winston-Salem, funded by state taxpayers to provide an education to North Carolina students.
The school is Quality Education Academy and the coach is Isaac Pitts, who recently posted a picture on his Instagram account announcing that he was searching for more foreign talent for his team at what appears to be a basketball factory disguised as a charter school that is supported with public money.
The comments were reported by Sarah Ovaska of N.C. Policy Watch whose investigation of QEA last year uncovered a host of questionable practices at the school, including financial irregularities, payments to a shady nonprofit run by Pitts, and conflicting statements about the nature of the basketball program from CEO Simon Johnson, who owns a house where some of the basketball players live.
More troubling still is that state education officials have known about QEA’s sketchy setup since at least 2010 when three Serbian players sent a desperate plea for help in an email to the Department of Public Instruction.
The students said the school was reclassifying them from seniors to juniors without their permission to keep them on campus and on the team. The students were ready to graduate and head to college. They were attending QEA on a scholarship but had each paid $4,000 to Pitts’ nonprofit.
Ovaska’s report found that two-thirds of the players on QEA’s basketball team since 2008 came from other states or other countries, including Nigeria, Canada and Serbia.
Johnson said the students were charged tuition but said he didn’t know how much. He also claimed that no taxpayer money was spent on the basketball program but apparently the school doesn’t keep a separate athletics budget. And the teachers, supplies, and overhead for the school are paid for by public funding.
The mother of a former player said her son lived in a house near the school with other teenage students without adult supervision and attended only one or two classes a semester. The nonprofit run by Pitts that the Serbian players were required to give $4,000 to had its nonprofit status revoked by the IRS.
Education officials initially demanded answers about the international students but they never followed up with the school. The questionable practices uncovered in Ovaska’s report prompted officials to promise to send an auditor to QEA but there’s been no announcement of any findings of their investigation and not much seems to have changed.
Pitts is still the coach and still recruiting players from other countries. Many questions about the schools operations and finances remain troubling and unanswered.
The State Board of Education did do one thing related to QEA last year, green lighting another charter school for Johnson, the College Preparatory and Leadership Academy in High Point where his daughter-in-law is the principal.
The school is currently operating inside a local church while it looks for a permanent site. No word yet if another shady basketball program is in the works, but don’t be surprised.
The folks in Raleigh don’t seem too concerned about it all.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.