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Keller criticizes ABQ charter school travel expenses

The GREAT Academy in Albuquerque. (Marla Brose/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Last spring, state Auditor Tim Keller criticized the GREAT Academy for paying its two top administrators a combined $300,000 a year — the highest charter school salaries in the state.

Now Keller says Jasper and Keisha Matthews, the school’s husband-and-wife administrative team, are taking lavish work trips to luxury resorts using money from the GREAT Academy’s nonprofit foundation.

During the 2016 fiscal year, the GREAT Academy Foundation spent roughly $16,000 on out-of-state travel and conference fees, including stays at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando, Fla., and the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Keller told the Journal he has never seen similar expenses at any other charter school.

“Is this really what their foundation should be focusing their money on?” Keller said. “We think they (the Matthewses) can afford these trips on their own.”

The GREAT Academy — a school with roughly 200 students in sixth through 12th grades at 6001 San Mateo NE — reported the trips to the state and has not violated any laws, but Keller said he thinks taxpayers deserve an explanation.

Jasper Matthews, GREAT Academy executive director and founder, told the Journal he disagrees with state auditor’s characterization of his school’s expenses.

The $16,000 bill covered trips to three educational conferences, according to documents Matthews submitted to the Journal. The Matthewses traveled with a number of board members and stayed at the conference’s host hotels at a discount rate, the documents state.

In total, the travel expenditures amount to less than 6 percent of the GREAT Academy Foundation’s annual budget.

“There are limits to how much you can spend on in-state and out-of-state travel — we follow all of those guidelines,” Jasper Matthews said. “We have not had any audit findings or any violations regarding our travel in this 15-16 audit year.”

In September, the Office of the State Auditor sent a letter to the presidents of the GREAT Academy’s foundation and board of directors criticizing the high travel costs.

“While not directly public dollars, Foundation resources are intended to be used for the purpose of advancing the needs of the School and should be used  judiciously,” the letter states.

Keller said he has not received a response.

Jasper Matthews told the Journal he thinks Keller, an Albuquerque mayoral candidate, circulated the letter to media to get “free press” ahead of the November runoff election.

Keller said he is focused on responsible charter school spending.

The Matthewses’ combined $300,000 salary is already a red flag, Keller said, particularly because the school’s instructors are among the lowest paid in New Mexico, earning an average of $38,000 a year.

Statewide, the average charter school administrator receives $87,000 a year.

“In that context, to see these additional trips expensed to the foundation, it’s very concerning,” Keller said.