Eagle Arts Academy pays off ‘loan’ never made to chairman’s firm

Eagle Arts Academy, a Wellington charter school, steered tens of thousands of dollars in disputed payments to a company operated by the school’s chairman last year, continuing them even after Palm Beach County’s school board began investigating the school’s financial dealings, records show.

Last year, the school directed a total of $48,000 in public money to a company owned by school Chairman Gregory James Blount for what it called repayment of a “start-up loan.” More than $19,000 was released after the school board’s inspector general initiated a probe in mid-July, records show.

Questions about the propriety of the payments arose after The Palm Beach Post reported in August that Blount’s company had never loaned the school money. Instead, the school admitted, the payments were intended to reimburse Blount for $38,779 that he said he spent while researching and writing a charter school application two years before the school opened in 2014.

Charter school experts called the financial arrangement extraordinary and contrary to the intent of state law, adding that assembling a charter school application usually costs less than half of the amount Blount claimed. A state senator called for the charter school’s board of directors to halt the payments and for the school district to investigate.

Eagle Arts, which markets itself as an arts school and says it infuses artistic elements into all of its classes, enrolls more than 600 students, making it one of the county’s larger charter schools.

The school board’s inspector general opened an investigation into the school’s financial practices in July, after a previous Post article revealed that two other companies operated by Blount had profited off the school. Eagle Arts, like all charter schools, is publicly financed but operated by a private board.

At the time, Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa called the investigation “a good use of our time and effort to see if folks have misused their positions and profited from it.”

“People say it’s a charter school and the district has very little oversight, but the public still looks to us for answers,” Avossa said in July. “There are professional standards that folks need to hold themselves to.”

But school records show that in the ensuing months, the payments to Blount’s company, Sound Tree Entertainment, continued.

Not only did the school pay Blount’s company the entirety of the $38,779 he said he was owed, records show the school also wrote him an extra check for $9,623 for what it said were interest payments, even though no loan had occurred.

That extra payment was made despite the fact that a school spokeswoman told The Post last summer that Blount had renounced any interest payments.

Eagle Arts’ charter with the school board appears to prohibit its board members from profiting from the school, stating that “no member of the school’s governing board shall receive compensation, directly or indirectly, from the school’s operations.” If a charter school is found to have violated its charter, the school board can contemplate penalties.

The school never signed a loan agreement with Blount and never formally acknowledged the loan until May, records show. The payment was approved without detailed invoices from Sound Tree Entertainment explaining most of the expenses.

Blount, who is still listed as the school’s chairman, did not respond to a request for comment. School administrators also declined to respond to questions about the payments.

The Post found discrepancies in the company’s compensation request that raised questions about whether Blount inflated his costs by as much as $14,500. Records showed that he asked for compensation both for application-related expenses and to pay off loans that he said his company took out to cover application-related expenses.

But the school board’s investigation appears to have languished. More than six months after the probe began, the school board’s inspector general said he is not sure when it will be completed.

“Due to other ongoing projects, we don’t have a clear timeline yet,” Inspector General Lung Chiu told The Post in an email.

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