A West Oakland church school that makes its students ask for money at BART stations appears to have vastly inflated its enrollment numbers to collect extra taxpayer funding, some of which goes to a teacher who former students say physically abused them and other children.
And for years, St. Andrew Missionary Baptist Church and private school has operated with virtually no government oversight despite repeated red flags. The K-12 school is run by pastor Robert Lacy, 79, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to theft of government money for taking his deceased father’s Social Security payments.
Documents and interviews show St. Andrew has inflated its enrollment numbers, allowing school officials to reap tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funding they might not have deserved.
The Oakland Unified School District – which oversees federal funding to aid the education of low-income students and others in private schools – allocated $50,000 this school year to St. Andrew. The funding was based on the school’s claim that it had 195 students, including 61 low-income students.
Over the previous four school years, Oakland Unified paid a total of $173,500 in federal funds to benefit St. Andrew based on its enrollment.
Yet former students and their parents said the school had no more than 30 students, and sometimes much fewer. An Oakland fire inspector said the school isn’t allowed to have more than 58 people in its classrooms.
Some parents said they paid up to $400 per month for tuition, while others said the school was free – as long as their children raised funds at BART stations.
In separate interviews, several former students said Robert Lacy Jr., a teacher and church leader, would hit, kick and throw things at students. Nine-year-old Corey Butler said Lacy Jr. hit him with a belt on his behind and across his hand. Butler said he saw Lacy Jr. abuse other students, too.
“He kicks people. He kicked the big kids,” Butler said. Butler’s mother took him and his siblings out of St. Andrew this year.
“I didn’t like it at all,” said Genius Wesley, a 9-year-old whose father pulled him out of the school this year. “The teacher was mean, and he always yelled at people. He hit this little kid all the time.”
In an interview, Lacy Jr. declined to answer questions about inflated enrollment numbers and said the students’ statements about abuse are not credible, calling them hearsay. He said the students represent a small sample of those who attended St. Andrew, and indicated that their families may be disgruntled for other reasons.
“Maybe we just didn’t give everything that they wanted us to give, money and stuff like that. Maybe that’s the problem,” he said. “Maybe we wouldn’t excuse their unexcused absences.”
Asked directly whether he hits children, Lacy Jr. said, “I don’t have any history of ever doing anything like that.” Asked whether he does it currently, Lacy Jr. again responded, “I don’t have a history of that.”
State and local officials are careful to note that the federal funding doesn’t go directly to the school, but rather to “independent” consultants to provide services.
Thalia Brown, a former kindergarten teacher at St. Andrew, said the church is more like a cult, where everyone fears and obeys the pastor. Brown has two children with Lacy Jr., but said about the school: “The nicest thing I can say is my son will never go there.”
“You have God in your ear telling you that Rev. Lacy is your spiritual leader and you should listen to him,” said Brown, who is divorced from Lacy Jr. “No one ever is going to step up to that man.”
Of the federal funding, Brown said, “Rev. Lacy, he knows how to work it.”
The money is doled out based on the number of students at the school. Since 2003, with one exception, the school reported to the state Department of Education that it had 195 students – 15 in each grade. The exception was the 2008-09 school year, when the school reported 265 students.
At the same time, the school reported to the state a low number of graduates: only 12 over the past four school years.
Despite claiming nearly 200 attendees, an inspection by the state Department of Social Services in March – to determine whether the school was also running a day care center – found 14 children at the school one day and 12 the next.
One morning last month, from 7:45 to 9:45 a.m., California Watch observed about six children trickle into the church and nine more who were dropped off in the school van.
The next morning, one boy showed up at 8:20 a.m. and got into the van, which then left. The church doors remained locked – an adult who showed up couldn’t get in – until the van returned at 9:45 a.m. with half a dozen children. School starts at 8 a.m., according to a packet of school rules provided to one parent.
Edward Gervasoni, an Oakland Fire Department inspector, visited the school last month in response to a citizen complaint. He said Lacy Jr. told him the school had 23 students but fluctuates up to 40. Gervasoni observed 15 to 20 students, he said, and determined that the fire code would allow no more than 58 people for all of the classrooms combined.
Courtney Corbitt, a 12-year-old whose mother took her out of the school in February, counted a total of 25 classmates by name, including several who were later pulled out by concerned parents and a few who are young children of the elder pastor. Corbitt said the students were lumped together into three classes.
The discrepancy between reported numbers and reality appears to go back for years. Gervasoni remembers seeing very few students at the school when he inspected it in 2007. As part of a bankruptcy proceeding in 2004, a church representative said the school had no more than 20 students.
Lacy Jr. declined to say how many students attend St. Andrew. “That’s private information,” he said. “It’s disclosed to individuals that send a valid request.”
“All I can tell you is I teach here every day,” he said. “And I give my time for the students and I care for these students that are here, and I give the education that I’ve gained so that these students can have an education and opportunities that these students didn’t have in the schools that they went to.”
So far, no authorities have taken the school to account.
Troy Flint, a spokesman with Oakland Unified, said the district is a “pass-through” organization for federal funds and isn’t provided the resources to check on every school.
“If these allegations are true, then obviously, that’s something we would put an end to because that would be an abuse of public funds,” Flint said in an interview with CBS 5 and California Watch.
Flint said someone should do an investigation, but the district doesn’t have the authority or capacity to do it.
“Because we are not given regulatory powers to the degree needed to police these schools, it does allow for loopholes and for certain unscrupulous people to take advantage,” Flint said. “I can’t say for sure that’s what happened in this case, but there are a lot of suspicious indicators, and I do think it warrants a second look.”
Flint suggested that the state Department of Education would have jurisdiction. But the state doesn’t verify the numbers either, said Jane Ross, education programs consultant for the department.
“They are filing with the superintendent of public instruction under penalty of perjury, but we don’t have the authority to challenge the information,” Ross said. She said she didn’t know who would have that authority.
For years, the district’s Board of Education has approved contracts paying Banks $100 per hour to conduct teacher training and Lacy Jr. $40 per hour to provide additional instruction for struggling students. Neither Banks nor Lacy Jr. has a teaching credential, and none is required.
For the 2010-11 school year, Banks received a $19,500 contract and Lacy Jr. earned $12,440. Last year, Lacy Jr. also invoiced the district for an $800 iPad and $100 per hour for 30 hours to fix computers for student use.
William Nownes, who oversees private school funding for Oakland Unified, said he accepts the enrollment numbers provided by the school without further investigation. Nownes said he reviews the school’s funding plan in meetings with Lacy Jr. and visited the school more than a year ago.
“They run a compliant program to the best of my knowledge,” he said.
Nownes defers to each school to pick its preferred instructors. Nownes said he looks to make sure the instructors have a college degree, though none is required.
Former students claim abuse
Six former students agreed to talk to California Watch about their experiences at St. Andrew. Accompanied by their parents in separate interviews, they described a pattern of verbal and physical abuse at the school.
Butler’s 14-year-old brother, Le’Gerrius Holt, said Lacy Jr. – who goes by Rev. Robert at school – hit him over the head with a book in class because he had called the teacher a “fool.”
“Rev. Robert said when we die – he already know we’re going to die before him – at our funeral, he’s going to go up to our parents and tell them not to cry because we’re going to go to hell,” Holt said.
Butler’s 13-year-old sister, La’asia Holt, said the elder Lacy told her, “If I go home and tell another lie to my mother, he gonna beat me himself,” she said. “I felt threatened.”
The siblings traded stories of abuse at St. Andrew as they sat with their mother, Yolanda Bailey, in their West Oakland home.
Bailey pulled her children out of the school this year because she said the Lacys insulted her children and didn’t send home report cards, among other problems.
Pastor Lacy did not respond to an e-mail and letter sent to the school requesting comment.
Courtney Corbitt said she witnessed Lacy Jr. throw objects – like a roll of duct tape – at other students, telling her once, “You might want to duck.”
Genius Wesley said he saw Lacy Jr. strike other students on their heads with his hand. Wesley also said he saw Lacy Jr. throw things at students, including a book.
“He threw it at someone else, and it almost hit me,” Wesley said, on the phone with his father. “He said, ‘I got good aim; it wasn’t going to hit you.’ ”
Once, when Lacy Jr. wouldn’t let Wesley go to the bathroom, Wesley ended up urinating on himself in class, he said.
In 2009, Charlos Stewart Jr., now 12, said Lacy Jr. locked him in a room upstairs in the church as punishment for talking. Stewart had to go to the bathroom and banged on the door, but nobody came. Stewart said he broke the lock but was caught and put inside with a bigger padlock, despite begging to go to the bathroom.
Stewart went to the window, sat on the ledge and contemplated jumping from the second story, he said. Fearing that he would die, the boy turned around but slipped and fell to the ground, breaking a foot in several places, he said.
His mother, Catherine Joiner, took him out of the school after the incident. “I felt so bad,” Joiner said. “I couldn’t even look at the church.”
The Oakland Police Department has no record of any complaints about the school, said spokeswoman Lea Rubio. The Alameda County Social Services Agency, which investigates allegations of child abuse, did not respond to requests for comment.
For his part, Lacy Jr. took issue with critical questions about the school.
“Is there any reason you don’t post the positives about this school,” he asked, “in terms of its longevity in the community and all the families that have received aid from this school, food and clothes? Why don’t you ask about that?”
History of benefits fraud
Former students said Lacy Jr. often left his class for hours or showed up very late.
“Most of the time, he wasn’t there,” Corbitt said. “Like, he wouldn’t get there till, like, 11 o’clock, so we would just be waiting for him.”
Students said they hardly ever got to go outside and play or use the computers that were fixed with federal money.
The résumé Lacy Jr. provided the district states that he has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and was a candidate for a master’s degree, though it also lists a 2010 doctorate degree. It doesn’t specify any schools where he earned the degrees.
His ex-wife, Thalia Brown, said Lacy Jr. attended CSU Hayward and received subsequent degrees from St. Andrew Theological & Academic University – which is run by the Lacys out of the church building. CSU Hayward, now called CSU East Bay, confirmed that a Robert Lacy attended from 1996 to 2000 but showed no records of a degree.
Lacy Jr. declined to answer questions about his education. California Watch asked Lacy Jr. on two occasions to provide names of St. Andrew supporters who could speak to the school’s positive attributes. He did not provide any names.
“You are discrediting the institution that’s in a community where they don’t receive any help that they need to have,” he said. “In the West Oakland area, if the (public) school system was in any way helping the students, we wouldn’t have the problems we have in West Oakland.”
The church’s university advertises a cornucopia of degrees but does not have authorization to operate from the Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education, said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs. After learning about the university from California Watch, the bureau is investigating whether it is violating the law, he said.
The Lacy family has a history of benefits fraud, records show. The elder Lacy pleaded guilty in 2007 to a misdemeanor for taking $17,000 in Social Security payments sent to his father, who had died. The pastor also received $22,000 in other government assistance for which he was ineligible, according to the proposed plea agreement.
Andrew Lacy, the pastor’s 37-year-old son who helps with the school and soliciting, pleaded guilty to felony welfare fraud in 2004, according to court records. County authorities found that he made false statements and withheld information about his income to receive $13,500 in benefits.
Then, in 2007, the state Employment Development Department obtained a $3,000 judgment against him for receiving excess benefits due to fraud or misrepresentation.
Andrew Lacy declined to comment.
Lacys called smooth talkers
Most weekday evenings, St. Andrew’s smartly dressed students politely ask for donations at BART stations, while some say they are made to beg under threat of punishment or bad grades.
Meanwhile, the pastor owns a Cadillac Escalade Platinum Edition, which retailed for about $70,000 in 2006, the year he bought it. Wearing a suit and fedora, the elder Lacy sometimes waits in the background as the children ask for money.
While some parents objected to the street soliciting, others went along with it after school officials told them it was required.
Parents described the Lacys as smooth talkers who persuaded them to enroll their children. They were drawn to St. Andrew because they thought a small, Christian private school would be better than Oakland public schools. Some said their children were struggling and needed an alternative school environment.
“Andrew (Lacy) was telling me it was one of the most accredited schools in Oakland and the grades were the highest,” said Yolanda Bailey. “It’s like they go out there and recruit people, mostly single women with children having trouble, who live in the bad neighborhood.”
St. Andrew had claimed on its website to be accredited by the Association of Christian Schools International. An association official said the school was a member – not accredited. After questions from California Watch, the association contacted the school, and St. Andrew then changed its website. Another part of the website still claims the school is accredited but doesn’t specify by whom.
Since 1978, the Lacys have run St. Andrew out of a historically black church built in 1920 and declared an Oakland landmark. The striking orange-and-white façade contrasts with the dilapidated side and back of the building, marked by peeling, discolored paint and boarded windows.
Gervasoni, the fire inspector, said the building is “very old and rundown,” and that the Lacys appear to be too poor to do much about it. He said the school needs a fire alarm system and other fixes, but doesn’t pose serious safety concerns.
The poor condition of the school shocked Rachel Elginsmith, executive director of The BASIC Fund, a San Francisco organization that funds scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools.
The group provided a few small scholarships to students at St. Andrew until Elginsmith visited in June 2010. “It was a difficult visit, frankly. It’s hard to envision children in an environment like that,” she said.
The Lacys wouldn’t let her inside, she said. The organization immediately cut off funding.
Soliciting at BART stations
But BART commuters continue to hand over money to the children who ask in almost robotic repetition, “Would you like to make a donation?”
The street soliciting has been going on for many years, with children of all ages. Marilyn Lawson said she took her 5-year-old granddaughter out of the school a few years ago after the pastor told her she’d have to start asking for money when she turned 6.
Courtney Corbitt remembers being packed in a van with other students – crammed in on each other’s laps, without seat belts – as Lacy Jr. drove them to BART stations.
Charlos Stewart Jr. said he was in fifth grade when he was robbed while collecting donations in downtown Oakland. A man took the money and ran, he said.
“I was scared. It was very fast,” he said. “You had to be out there for a long time. I wouldn’t want to be out there.”
The father of another student, Mekhi Nosakhare, was alarmed to read in a previous California Watch story that the 9-year-old was asking for donations at the Downtown Berkeley BART station late last year. At the time, the girl – whose mother is married to Andrew Lacy – said she would get in trouble if she didn’t solicit.
Her father, Gabriel Osakhare, filed for custody of the girl because he was concerned she was being forced to “panhandle” and was receiving poor instruction at St. Andrew.
“Her step-father threatened her that she will be slapped, curses at her and calls her names if she says that she does not want to go on the nightly donations which last for at least 3 hours Mon-Fri from 5-8PM,” he wrote in a court filing.
In court records, the girl’s mother denied the allegations and said her daughter willingly went out fundraising.
In April, a judge gave the father primary custody of the girl, ordering that she not engage in soliciting during weekends with her mother and that no corporal punishment be allowed by either parent. The judge also specified that she stay in a public elementary school where her father has enrolled her.