Updated at 5 p.m. CT
A former Milwaukee School Board president was indicted in federal court Thursday in an alleged charter school bribery scheme.
Michael Bonds is accused of accepting $6,000 in bribes from a Philadelphia-based charter school operator.
The charter school operator is not named in court documents. But reports from the Philadelphia Inquirer indicate it was a business called Universal Companies, which ran three charter schools in Milwaukee under the name "Universal Academy of the College Bound."
The schools were plagued with financial problems, and all of them eventually closed. The last one shut down in the middle of the school year in 2017.
Court documents allege then-Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds received payments from the charter school company in exchange for favorable votes on Universal’s contracts between 2014 and 2016.
“Public officials, including those like Michael Bonds who were elected by voters to manage public schools, have a duty to provide honest services to their constituents,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams in a statement. “In this case, some of those constituents are school children who have no choice but to depend on adults to make decisions in their best interest, which makes Bonds’ alleged actions even more egregious. Public officials cannot be allowed to use their positions and influence to enrich themselves.”
Court documents say Bonds received $6,000 total from the charter executives. He allegedly disguised the payments by creating a company called African American Books and Gifts.
Universal received at least $11 million in state funding for its Milwaukee charter schools. State report cards show the schools served more than 1,000 students most of whom were economically disadvantaged and African-American. Universal still operates charter schools in Philadelphia.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. Government entities like MPS and the city of Milwaukee have power to authorize charter schools, but day-to-day oversight and hiring is up to an independent operator.
Charter schools are a hot topic nationally and in Milwaukee. This month, five new members were elected to the school board — all of them skeptical of charter schools and endorsed by the Milwaukee teachers’ union.
Meagan Holman was MPS Board vice president during part of the time Bonds is accused of taking bribes. When asked what she would say to Milwaukee families whose trust in the board is shaken by the charges against Bonds, Holman said this:
"They should be sad and disappointed that somebody who served on the board for a very long time would compromise the integrity for a relatively small amount of money to put in their pocket.”
Bonds abruptly resigned from the school board last year, several months before the end of his term. He was first elected in 2007.
Bonds declined to comment for this story. An MPS spokesman said the district is not able to comment at this time.
If convicted of the federal charges, Bonds could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. His first court appearance is scheduled for May 6.
Editor's note: This is a developing story and will be updated.
Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.