Leo Academy: A look at Matt Huffman’s involvement

LIMA — Months before Leo Academy closed, the private school reached out to a powerful source for help: There wasn’t enough money for payroll. What did Matt Huffman think the school board should do?

The Ohio Senate president, whose law firm represented Leo Academy and its predecessor, Golden Bridge Academy, had years of experience fundraising for his political campaigns and headlining fundraisers for his high school alma mater, Lima Central Catholic.

Now Leo Academy was short $25,000 for payroll, a scenario that would repeat itself several times before the school shut down in December 2021.

“When Ann Riddle called me in October and said, ‘We can’t pay the staff,’ I had a serious conversation about whether the school should continue to exist at all,” Huffman said during an emergency board meeting on Nov. 23, 2021, according to a recording of the meeting provided to The Lima News.

While Huffman found a local donor who was willing to give the school $25,000, he said, the school’s payroll problems persisted, leading him and a Leo Academy board member, Ann Riddle, to ask for donations to cover the next three payrolls, Huffman told staff that evening, according to the recording.

The school closed three-and-a-half weeks later.

‘The first red flag’

Huffman, one of the most powerful school voucher supporters in Ohio, has been instrumental in expanding access to the state’s EdChoice program, a public scholarship for low-income children and those who reside in low-performing school districts to attend private school.

When the General Assembly adopted its Fair School Funding Plan, Huffman was able to secure a provision that boosted the value of those scholarships and expand similar programs.

His support extends far beyond the legislature.

In 2020, Huffman helped a teacher from Golden Bridge Academy incorporate a 501c3 so she could keep the small private school open when the owners stepped down. The school changed its name to Leo Academy, with a fresh emphasis on teaching financial literacy and real-world skills to elementary and junior high students.

But the school, which no longer charged tuition, suffered so many financial and academic setbacks that it closed a year and a half later.

“The first red flag, my first meeting, was when one of the board members said she had secured a loan to help pay payroll,” said board President Warren Pughsley, who was appointed to the board in September 2021.

‘An anomaly’

Only 84 students were enrolled at Leo Academy when it closed in December 2021, Ohio Department of Education records show. But nearly one-third of those students were deemed ineligible or waiting for DOE to approve their EdChoice vouchers — the publicly funded scholarships that Leo Academy depended on in lieu of private tuition.

Administrators missed deadlines to apply for federal meal programs and early childhood education grants too, so the school turned to private donors and a federal Payroll Protection Program loan while it waited for ODE to approve the scholarships, Pughsley told The Lima News last year.

None of the 39 Leo Academy students who took state assessments during the 2020-21 school year earned proficient scores, DOE records show. And the school’s principal, Kendra Gottschalk, later admitted many students were one or two grade levels behind in at least one subject area before she took over as principal.

The school was founded in 1997 by Karen and Larry Beard, first as a for-profit and then as a non-profit private school that Gottschalk would eventually take over in 2020.

“There were a lot of local donors and people who knew how to run schools as it started out,” Huffman told The Lima News in December when asked about the policy implications of what happened to Leo. “And then it sort of deteriorated to a point where they didn’t have all that local support, the state infrastructure and all that existed, so I think it’s a bit of an anomaly.”

‘It’s not easy to ask somebody for $25K’

Huffman declined to comment on his relationship with Leo Academy, directing The Lima News to speak with the board president, Warren Pughsley, who confirmed that Huffman and his law firm provided legal services to the school, though Pughsley added that it was unclear whether those services were provided pro bono.

Huffman’s firm represented Golden Bridge Academy, Leo’s predecessor, in a civil lawsuit that was eventually dismissed.

And weeks before Leo Academy closed, Huffman met with the school board and staff to discuss the school’s dire financial situation.

“For the last eight weeks, either Ann Riddle or myself have gone out to donors and asked them to give us $25,000,” Huffman said, according to a recording of the meeting provided to The Lima News. “And I will tell you, it’s not easy to ask somebody for $25,000. The concern is, how much more do we have to do that?”

The state auditor does not audit private schools, relying instead on parents to control how the scholarships are spent by allowing parents to withdraw a student at any time if a school does not meet their standards.

An ‘unusual situation’?

Still, Leo Academy was subject to some oversight from DOE through its office of nonpublic education, which administers EdChoice scholarships, monitors student attendance records and reviews certain spending reports and private school tuition schedules to ensure schools aren’t charging more than advertised.

A DOE spokeswoman said the agency offered technical assistance to Leo Academy once it learned the school was struggling.

Huffman dismissed the demise of Golden Bridge and Leo Academy as an “anomaly” and an “unusual situation,” telling The Lima News that his primary lesson from the debacle is that professionals should be involved because schools are difficult to run.

He alluded to the legislature’s latest effort to limit the state Board of Education’s powers too, an effort which would give the legislature more oversight over the Department of Education and state school board.

“But I think it’s always true there are people trying to start charter schools,” Huffman said. “It’s difficult to do that. There are — am I concerned? Well, largely, the increasing capacity is going to come from people who already know what they’re doing.”