REDMOND — For Michael Bremont, the growth of charter schools in Oregon modeled after Redmond Proficiency Academy was about more than education: It also represented business opportunities for his consulting firm.
As the school’s founding director, Bremont got the high-profile job of leading the school when it opened in 2009. Then in March, faced with charges of sexually abusing a female student, he resigned.
While serving RPA as its director, Bremont was tied to a consulting firm that entered into five no-bid contracts with the school’s board. Records show that those contracts totaled $114,400 and were approved by the school’s board between January 2010 and July 2010. The school is overseen by the board of Personalized Learning Inc.
Personalized Learning is a nonprofit created to provide oversight and leadership for the charter school. It’s also had a hand in exploring opportunities for similar charter schools to open elsewhere.
Payment for those contracts came in addition to Bremont’s $110,000-a-year salary as the school’s director.
The roots of Bremont’s consulting firm stretch back to October 2008, when paperwork for Jake Straib Management Consulting was filed with the Oregon secretary of state.
It listed three organizers and members: Bremont; Jon Bullock, now the interim director of RPA; and Shay Mikalson, who later became superintendent of the Redmond School District. Bremont was its registered agent, and the company still exists.
“Michael was the driving force behind the business and did the vast majority of the work, and he controlled the finances and operations,” Bullock said. “So my knowledge about the status of the company — I’m still in the process of learning about it.”
The month before the company started, the same trio of educators succeeded in getting the Redmond School District’s board to approve in September 2008 an application for the charter school to start. At the time, Bullock was principal of Redmond High School, and Mikalson and Bremont were assistant principals at the school.
Jake Straib doesn’t exist — at least not one associated with the company.
That name came about when the educators who started the company rearranged some of the initials of their children, forming the name “Jake Straib.”
“There’s no one named Jake Straib,” Bullock said.
In another twist, Bremont’s criminal case file indicates that he’s used “Adam Straib” as an alias, though it doesn’t reveal the circumstances.
An alias need not be a legal name. And it doesn’t appear from public records that Bremont has ever used Straib as a legal name.
Bremont’s education career spans back to 1996 in Oregon schools. Bremont’s name is on his college transcripts, a résumé and job application he sent to the Central Linn School District when applying for a job in 2002. He worked there until 2006 as a high school vice principal and principal.
After graduating in December 1995 from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in special education, Bremont began his career the next month as a substitute teacher at Lake County School District in Southern Oregon. That brief job lasted until June 1996.
From there, he worked as a special education teacher at Sisters School District in the 1996-97 school year. In the fall of 1997, he returned to the Lake County School District, where he worked as a counselor and later as director of student services.
In 2002, Bremont moved to Central Linn School District, staying there until 2006 as both a high school vice principal and principal.
In 2006, Bremont came to Redmond High School, working as the assistant principal of instruction and curriculum. There, he helped put proficiency-based learning opportunities in place for students.
That work led to an interest in opening a charter high school that would be entirely devoted to proficiency-based education. That model of education is tailored toward individual student needs, with courses that allow them to progress at their own pace after demonstrating proficiency in the material. Students also can develop classes and projects based on their individual strengths and interests.
Bremont, who left Redmond High in 2009 to become the first director of RPA, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Four of the five contracts centered on the efforts of Personalized Learning Inc. to start similar charter schools in two other districts: Salem-Keizer and Tigard-Tualatin.
For the effort in the Tigard-Tualatin district, there was a $19,000 contract for development services and a $24,700 contract for recruitment and training services the board approved in January 2010. That $43,700 amount was the bulk of the $56,000 planning grant for charter schools from the Oregon Department of Education.
At the same meeting at which the contracts were approved, Bremont had an answer ready when a board member — hearing of other possible new school sites — asked if there was too much growth too soon.
According to meeting minutes, Bremont said: “We get grant money and never have to open the school. It is for exploring the option to open a new charter school.”
Tigard-Tualatin school officials later rejected an application for the school to open, and the effort died.
Mikalson said his only involvement with the consulting company was in writing the grant for the Tigard-Tualatin effort.
He left the company as he moved into the superintendent post at the district in 2010.
“I haven’t been a part of it since,” he said.
Public records show that the company’s filings were amended in May 2010, taking Mikalson’s name off and leaving only Bremont and Bullock.
That same month, Mikalson was hired as interim superintendent at the school district. The district is overseen by a board different from RPA’s board.
Bullock said he helped but described his role as minor compared with Bremont’s.
“I helped write the grants, and I provided advice when asked questions,” he said.
The Salem-Keizer effort was more successful.
That district’s board has accepted the charter application, though its opening date was pushed back a year to the fall of 2013 after Bremont’s arrest.
For the Salem-Keizer proposal, the board hired the Jake Straib firm in June 2010, signing off on a $23,000 contract for development services and a $24,700 contract for recruitment and training services for the new school.
Like the other two contracts, the payments came out of a $56,000 charter school planning grant from the Oregon Department of Education.
Patrick MacKelvie, president of RPA’s board, stressed that the money that went toward efforts to open new schools was taken from grants — not from the budget of the Redmond charter school.
State law doesn’t allow mixing funds from one charter school to help another one get its start, he said.
Bremont’s connection to the consulting firm wasn’t hidden from the board.
“For us, the face of that organization was pretty much always Michael,” MacKelvie said.
The fifth contract was directly tied to Redmond Proficiency Academy — not new school efforts. Jake Straib Management Consulting also got a $23,000 contract to provide charter school recruitment and training services directly to RPA — work that also was covered by a grant.
That contract came about due to the rapid growth of RPA, MacKelvie said, adding that because of the specialized proficiency-based education system, more time and effort is needed to recruit the right staff.
“It takes a special kind of teacher with training and sort of a different philosophy,” MacKelvie said.
The school’s board unanimously voted on the contracts in open, public meetings after hearing proposals for the contracts from Bremont, meeting minutes show.
The question of possible conflicts with having Bremont getting contracts for his business was acknowledged but not considered worrisome enough to avoid.
Board meeting minutes note that the board is aware of “any potential conflict between Michael Bremont, Director of RPA, and co-owner of Jake Straib Management Consultants and accepts that.”
Charter school conflict of interest policies recommended by the Oregon School Boards Association, by comparison, forbid school employees from using their position for “personal financial benefit,” extending that to relatives, household members and “any business with which the employee, household member or relative is associated.”
Those policies are based on Oregon’s conflict of interest laws for public officials, which include school employees.
“It was done in good faith,” MacKelvie said. “We were aware of the statutes.”
He said the nature of the firm’s work made it different from other professional services — like attorneys — that would have presented multiple options.
“With the situation, it was a little unique because there weren’t any other firms — at least that we were aware of — that could do that sort of development work,” he said.
Other documents echo that sentiment. For example, the charter school board reviewed a recommendation concerning the work on the Tigard-Tualatin School District proposal. That recommendation stated: “The recommendation for the use of JSM and the non-competitive process is that JSM consists of three partners (Jon Bullock, Shay Mikalson and Michael Bremont) who each possess extensive knowledge in the areas of school administration, charter school development, and proficiency-based practices. Further, this same group — as individuals — successfully performed similar work for PLI in the development of RPA. There are no other consultants specializing in proficiency, the training of proficiency staff, or the hiring of proficiency staff.”
MacKelvie said the arrangement wasn’t hidden, with the board approving the contracts publicly and noting the conflict.
“We acknowledged that conflict of interest,” he said. “It was all kind of out there.”
Asked about how Bremont’s consultant duties were separated from his director job, MacKelvie said: “Michael’s stance on it was always that the development of other schools was taking place away from RPA and outside of RPA time.”
Still, the ties between the consulting company and school were close. In 2009, for example, the school and consulting company shared the same mailbox address, business filings show.
How much work was devoted to consulting activities is difficult to pinpoint. Invoices that the company submitted to Personalized Learning list only the flat fee agreed to in contracts.
The billing records from the company don’t detail how many hours of work were involved.
“We never asked him for time sheets or anything of that level,” MacKelvie said.