Michael Bonds, former president of the Milwaukee Public Schools board of directors, was charged in federal court in Philadelphia on Thursday in an alleged bribery scheme involving a company that operated several charter schools, including three in Milwaukee.
Bonds is accused of conspiracy and violations of the Travel Act for allegedly accepting kickbacks from executives of the Philadelphia-based Universal Companies in return for votes beneficial to the company between 2014 and 2016. Two unnamed executives of the Philadelphia-based company were implicated in the scheme but not charged.
According to the charging document, the executives used fake invoices to make payments totaling $6,000 to African-American Books and Gifts, a company purportedly created by Bonds. Efforts to locate a Wisconsin company by that name were not immediately successful.
The document says Bonds also received “things of value” but did not elaborate. It is seeking $18,000 in forfeitures from Bonds.
Bonds declined to comment on the charges. MPS spokesman Andy Nelson said district officials also would not comment.
The document identifies the executives only as Universal’s president and chief executive officer, and its chief financial officer. The Philadelphia Inquirer used tax records to identify those individuals as former CEO Rahim Islam and current CFO Shahied Dawan.
The charges come five months after the FBI raided Universal’s offices and Islam’s home.
Universal was chartered by MPS to operate the Universal Academy for the College Bound in three Milwaukee school buildings from 2013 until it abruptly left the district in 2017, leaving hundreds of children stranded in the middle of the school year.
The school received at least $11 million in taxpayer funds in its first two years, according to the court document, yet it struggled academically and financially from the beginning.
In one case, it says, Bonds helped the company defer about $1 million in lease payments to MPS in April 2016.
Charter schools under fire
There is a growing concern nationally about independent charter schools, which receive government funds but are run by private or nonprofit boards and often are not held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools. They were a central issue in the recent MPS elections in which a slate of candidates critical of independent charter schools swept five seats.
Bob Peterson, former president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association who won the citywide at-large seat in this month’s election, called Universal’s Milwaukee schools “independent charter schools at their worst.”
“The federal indictment and the previous actions of Universal charter schools is a cautionary reminder why we should be wary of spending public money on privately run charter schools,” he said.
Universal Companies was founded in part by Philadelphia music producer Kenny Gamble. It operates eight charter schools in Philadelphia, according to its website.
Universal came to Milwaukee at the invitation of then-Superintendent and Philadelphia native Gregory Thornton. It operated three campuses, in the former Green Bay Avenue School, 3872 N. 8th St.; Webster School, 6850 N. 53rd St.; and Lee Elementary School, 921 W. Meinecke Ave.
Thornton said in 2012 that the failing schools taken over by Universal in Philadelphia were showing improvement.
According to the charging document, MPS officials raised concerns about Universal’s financial viability almost from the beginning and yet its contracts were renewed and expanded several times with Bonds’ help.
Bonds, 60, served on the MPS board from 2007 until he abruptly resigned in July 2018, nine months before his term was to end. He was a frequent critic of the Milwaukee teachers union, calling its members “greedy.”
He also worked as an associate professor and department chair for the Education Policy and Community Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee but retired last year. He returned to teach an online course this semester. But a spokesman for the university said Thursday a substitute instructor would be assigned to the course for the remainder of the semester.
Records show Bonds earned $86,101 at UWM in the 2017-’18 school year. He earned less than $20,000 as a school board member.
Bonds has twice filed for federal bankruptcy protection, in 2011 and in 1989.
In 2011, he said he was filing because of a loss in household income after his wife, Kathy Bonds, then an MPS principal, had been transferred to a different school and he lost about 7% of his income because of state furlough days. He listed assets of $242,490 and liabilities of $331,375, including $10,000 in federal taxes for which he had worked out a payment plan. He listed their combined income at the time at about $141,000 annually.
The couple filed the 1989 reorganization, he said, because he was unemployed. A payment plan was drawn up and Bonds said the creditors were repaid within four years.