By Shawn Raymundo and Zach Cavanagh
Student athletes from San Juan Hills High School were among thousands of others statewide whose information was used as part of a charter school scam to inflate summer enrollment numbers and ultimately defraud the state of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.
Sean McManus, 46, and Jason Schrock, 44, are being charged with several counts of conspiracy and misappropriation of public funds for allegedly funneling $50 million from the state through their network of 19 online charter schools called A3 Education.
The two ringleaders were indicted last month in San Diego County along with nine others who allegedly helped recruit private schools and sports programs to hand over student information in exchange for money, as well as educational services that were never provided.
“As part of a wide-ranging scheme, the defendants sought out small school districts with limited experience in oversight and proposed they authorize online charter schools to earn additional public funds in the form of oversight fees,” the San Diego District Attorney said in a press release.
According to news reports, 10 of the 11 defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges. McManus, an Australian national, remains at large.
According to the DA’s office, the charter schools with A3 were eligible to collect about $2,000 per student from the state for those who are enrolled as regular students in the summertime. Using the students’ information from various youth-centered athletic programs that were paid for under the guise of a donation, Schrock and McManus were able to enroll those students into the charter schools and allegedly pocket the funding from the state.
In San Juan Hills’ case, A3 paid the school more than $16,000 in 2017 for the information of 83 students who had been unwittingly enrolled in a summer sports program from which they didn’t benefit.
San Juan Hills High would not comment on the indictment, and the Capistrano Unified School District could not respond to The Capistrano Dispatch’s questions, as it is currently conducting its own internal investigation.
The 235-page indictment provides a timeline of events, detailing how officials with A3 implicated the San Juan Hills football team in the scam when the players’ parents were asked to enroll the student athletes into the Prodigy Athletes’ SWAG program through Valiant Charter Schools.
In June of 2017, Nyla Crider and Kalehua Kukahiko, employees of the charter schools and defendants in the case, began discussing whether San Juan Hills High “would be interested in coming to Valiant Charter Schools.”
The following month, after getting McManus’ blessing, Crider, Kukahiko and her husband, Troy Kukahiko, also a defendant and the head of Prodigy Athletes, “collaborated” with Aaron Flowers, then the school’s football coach and athletic director, on an email to send to the players’ parents.
Flowers, who is not being charged or listed as a defendant in the case, agreed to be Valiant’s “teacher of record” for the summer course. For each student who enrolled into Prodigy, Valiant would give the school’s football program $200.
“I was approached and was told that everything was on the up and up. That’s why we did it,” Flowers said in a phone interview with The Dispatch.
The program was supposed to entail a “leadership component” in which NCAA core courses would be discussed with the students, said Flowers, who resigned from San Juan Hills High at the end of the 2017-2018 school year and is now coaching in Idaho.
“They were going to talk to the kids about it. It was stuff I couldn’t find the time in the day (of coaching) to cover it with the kids,” Flowers said.
In mid-July, Flowers emailed the families of the players, asking if they were interested in enrolling the students in Prodigy’s SWAG program. If so, they would need to complete the “Master Agreement, which showed the start date for the course as July 1, 2017 and the end date as August 21, 2017,” the indictment read.
At the behest of McManus, the charter school employees were directed to backdate student enrollment information, allowing the schools to receive additional funding, according the district attorney’s office.
Some parents, the indictment continued, had doubts about the program and expressed some concerns. Not knowing exactly how to respond, Flowers reached out to Crider and Kalehua and Troy Kukahiko asking for guidance.
The employees consulted with McManus. Flowers was later told that the “components” of the summer program were already built into San Juan Hills High’s football program and, therefore,“didn’t require students to spend any time outside of football practice.”
Responding to the concerned parents, Flowers told them that participation in the program was not mandatory.
“I didn’t have doubts. It was their program, and I was providing it,” Flowers told The Dispatch. “They said they would make a donation. But (the Prodigy program) was not mandatory. It was an option. I let the parents know that I thought it was a great opportunity.”
However, by early August, Flowers did begin expressing doubts, believing the $200 per student SJH High was promised was “too good to be true.” Crider reported Flowers’ doubts back to McManus, who responded via text that “he would write the check to Aaron Flowers in blood if he had to.”
A few weeks later, Crider and Schrock personally delivered Flowers a check made out to the San Juan Hills’ Stallion Booster Club for $16,600, covering payment for the 83 participants enrolled in Prodigy’s SWAG program.
Prior to that visit, Crider and Schrock had spoken about bringing with them a Memorandum of Understanding, which would outline the $200-per-student agreement, as well as “lock in San Juan Hills High School for the next five years,” the indictment states.
It’s unclear whether that MOU was agreed upon or signed by any official from the school.
When asked when he knew that the program wasn’t “on the up and up,” Flowers said he wasn’t made aware that there was an issue until two months ago, when investigators called him.
“That’s the first I heard of it,” he said. “There was nothing about this until this past March (when I was called by an investigator). I feel terrible that the school is even involved. I feel terrible that I was misled on it. Looking back, there are things I would do differently, and I trusted people.”
“I love that school,” he said, adding that he wants “the best for that school.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports.