Prominent charter school success story confronts accusations of controversial connections

May 24, 2017 11:24 PM

Popular charter school success story Rochester Academy denied it had any links to a controversial Turkish religious leader and political movement, even as representatives for the Turkish government declared them connected.

Known for its emphasis on math and science, and bragging a graduation rate of 94 percent, Rochester Academy has been routinely praised by political leaders for offering an alternative to conventional public schools. But the academy and similar schools in New York State and across the country have raised suspicion about reported affiliations to Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, an Islamic cleric who now lives in Pennsylvania has been accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating last year's violent failed coup attempt in Turkey.

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"These charter schools, which are supposed to be related to the community, are actually not being run by the community," exclaimed attorney Robert Amsterdam. "They are being run by a cadre of Turkish teachers and administrators who report to a central regional Imam who reports back to Mr. Gulen."

Amsterdam's firm, Amsterdam and Partners, has been hired by the Turkish government. Its researchers said they have identified more than 120 publicly funded charter schools nationwide as Gulen schools operated by a tightly knit, but loosely defined, network of Turkish or central European followers of Fethullah Gulen, followers who routinely move between schools, companies that do business with schools, and Turkish cultural organizations.

The chairman of the Rochester Academy board, Mahmut Gedemenli, repeatedly declared the school was autonomous and run, on its own, by seven independent board members."

"We have no affiliation with any of those schools," Gedemenli said. "Rochester Academy charter school is established under the New York State charter school law and governed by seven independent board members."

"Number one, they don't tell the parents that they're a Gulen School," explained Amsterdam. Amsterdam and Partners identifies four state-funded charter schools in upstate New York as Gulen institutions: The Buffalo Academy of Science, the Syracuse Academy of Science, the Utica Academy of Science and Rochester Academy. "The American public is being duped," Amsterdam said, "not only with respect to money but with respect to control of the schools."

Amsterdam planned to publish a book this summer documenting the pervasive involvement of Gulenists in America's rapidly growing embrace of charter schools. "The movement, essentially, has attached itself to the charter school issue in the United States."

According to Amsterdam and Partners' documentation, schools are one component of a multi-component Gulen network nationwide, a second component being Turkish cultural associations like an umbrella group, Gulen's "Alliance for Shared Values" in New York City which prominently features Fethullah Gulen, his speeches and his writings on its website. As subsidiary organizations, the attorneys cite groups like the "Peace Islands Institute" and the "Turkish Cultural Center," both headquartered at the same address on Dewey Avenue in Rochester (a location that will resurface momentarily.)

Gedemenli insisted Rochester Academy does not belong on that list. "The school is governed by seven independent board members," he said. "There is no place that the school is affiliated with any of these Gulen movements."

"I think it will be difficult to believe that," replied Ersin Erman, president of the Turkish Society of Rochester with a chuckle. "I think it will be very difficult to believe that they are not part of the Gulen movement."

Founded in 1969, the Society declares itself representative of one of the oldest Turkish communities in the United States and the foyer of its Chili headquarters prominently features a bust of secular icon Kemal Ataturk, considered the founder of modern Turkey. Erman said many Rochester-area Turks keep their distance from Gulen. Some members of the society, who asked not to be identified, said they were impressed by Gulen's fast rise and its successful networking with powerful leaders but were then alarmed by what they called a political and religious agenda behind schools like Rochester Academy, wondering "how these schools are being created," said Erman, "with taxpayer money, and what the long-term goal, the long-term purpose, is with Gulen members acting as educators and administrators in the schools."

Another part of the Gulen financial network named in the Amsterdam research is "individual Gulenists," many of them teachers like Ersin Konkur. "We were believing we help peace," recalled Konkur, who said he joined the Gulen movement in Turkey as a teenager before being brought to America by the movement to work at Gulen schools in Texas and then at the Utica Academy of Science. "We were believing we help educate kids to help the societies that we live in. We came here with good feelings. We came here to serve the people."

Konkur kept checks, receipts and contracts that he presented as proof that he was expected to redirect thousands of dollars of his New York State-paid salary to the Gulen movement.

"You have a salary on the paper, in the contract," he said. "But this is not your Gulen movement salary. This is the salary on paper. But there is another salary you have."

That "other" salary, Konkur explained, was the level, lower, at which the movement declared he was supposed to be compensated. If his contracted salary were higher, he was obligated to turn over the difference to the Utica Academy, its finance manager, or the regional Gulen movement Imam, on pain of losing his legal immigration status.

"If I don't pay, they can send me, tomorrow, to my country and I cannot ask for my rights," he said. "There is no way. It's like enslavement." 

Konkur said he hoped to get some of his money back, or expose his former employers, by suing the Utica Academy in small claims court.

Konkur's experience illustrated the interconnected nature critics attribute to the Gulen network. To make one payment, he was required to drive from Utica to Rochester and write a check to "Highway Education," a company whose address is listed at the same Dewey Avenue address as the Turkish Cultural Center.

"Really it's a whole consortium of interrelated companies engaging in massive, self-dealing, and fraud," said Amsterdam, who identified another component of the Gulen network as Turkish business interests. In New York and New Jersey, Amsterdam and Partners singles out two persistently appearing names as Apple Educational Services (not to be confused with Apple Computer), and Terra Foundation for Science and Engineering, headquartered at the same address as the Syracuse Academy of Science, one of the schools identified as Gulen-affiliated in Amsterdam's literature.

Last year, Terra bought the old Our Lady of Sorrows school and church buildings in Greece and now rent them to Rochester Academy.

Gedemenli brushed off the connection. "OK, Terra is a vendor," he said.  "But we have many other vendors. You go and do shopping with many other vendors, right? It's just one of them."

But Gedemenli isn't just chairman of the board of Rochester Academy. Terra's 2011 federal tax forms list Gedemenli as corporate secretary for Terra.

"We all have our personal lives," he exclaimed. "We all have our personal connections. But the issue for me is: Are we doing everything to educate our students?"

A similar real estate deal in Buffalo was flagged by the state in 2013 and schools labeled as linked to Gulen have been investigated for similar practices in Texas, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of the Inspector General confirmed to News10NBC that "the OIG is conducting investigative work in this area" but would not provide any more details.

Gedemenli declared the real verdict has already come from state charter regulators who renewed Rochester Academy's charter and approved its plans to expand.

"If we are, currently, approved by New York State for K-through-6 expansion, along with a new five-year renewal term," he said, "what is the message given to us? ‘We trust you.'"


Charles Molineaux

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