Charter consultant exiled, investigated elsewhere now working in Chattanooga

The logo of the Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence is shown in this 2011 file photo.
photo Marcia Griffin, founder and executive director at the Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence in Brainerd, is shown in this 2011 photo.

Authorities in New Jersey told Steve Gallon III to stop working with the state's public schools and not come back. Now Gallon is in Tennessee and working with the Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence.

Gallon was at one time a school superintendent in New Jersey. After being arrested and told to stay away from the state's public schools he started a consulting company, Tri-Star Leadership. This company began working with three charter schools in Florida in 2011. Each school has been shuttered since, and Gallon's tenure at those schools was the subject of a Sun Sentinel investigation into allegations of cronyism and financial mismanagement.

Gallon began consulting for the Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence at the beginning of this year about how to use data more efficiently, school Executive Director Marcia Griffin said.

Griffin said she was aware of Gallon's background, but was satisfied with his explanations about his past.

"[Tri-Star] came in to do a job and they effectively did it and we are pleased," Griffin said. "We've never had a problem with them and not one complaint."

The bill for Gallon's consulting is paid by taxpayer dollars. Griffin was not able to provide a copy of the contract between the public charter school and Tri-Star Leadership on Thursday or Friday, saying she didn't know where it was.

But in Florida, the Sun Sentinel reported Gallon was paid $135 an hour of public money as a consultant - and Tri-Star received as much as $60,000 a month from the three schools where it was working.

Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence board member Lucien Ellington said he learned of the allegations regarding Gallon a couple months ago and raised the issue with Griffin and board Chairman Ruel Harrison.

"Given my positive professional interactions with, and trust of both Mrs. Griffin and Mr. Harrison during the last four years, I found their explanation of the decision to work with Dr. Gallon creditable," Ellington told the Times Free Press in an e-mail. " As a board member I've heard two reports this spring from Dr. Gallon on his CCSE school improvement work and am impressed with several of his recommendations regarding improvement of the school."

Board member Cliff Butler did not return a request for comment, and neither Harrison nor board member Lawrence Brown could be reached for comment.

Hamilton County Assistant Superintendent Lee McDade said charter schools may contract with whomever they want and do not need the school district's approval unless Title I funds are involved - which they are not in this case.

The Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence is independently audited each year and is reviewed by officials within the school system. McDade said nothing suspicious has been noticed in the audits.

Gallon did not respond to a request for comment. The company emailed a statement saying it "is comprised of a network of qualified and proven educational professionals, [and] provides qualified, experienced, and credentialed consultants [to] support schools, districts, organizations and municipalities throughout the nation."

The statement added that the company's consultants and associates all comply with the eligibility and background screenings required in school districts where they work.

The Sun Sentinel reported that Gallon was run out of New Jersey in 2011, after back-to-back scandals erupted in the Plainfield school district where he served as superintendent. He was investigated for bringing in cronies from out of state, offering them six-figure salaries. Soon after, the New Jersey Department of Education discovered that the new hires lacked needed certification, the Sun Sentinel reported.

Gallon tried to sidestep this by hiring them under different titles that did not require certification, but Gov. Chris Christie stepped in and the school board fired Gallon's hires, according to news reports.

Police arrested Gallon in May of 2010, saying that he falsely claimed some of his employees lived at his address. This allowed their children to attend school in a district where the parents neither lived nor worked, at taxpayer expense, according to the Sun Sentinel's probe.

Gallon and the two employees agreed to serve probation and never work in New Jersey's public schools in return for the charges being dropped, the newspaper reported.

These employees ended up in Florida with Gallon and were awarded jobs in the school system and with Tri-Star. Gallon even padded their pay with some double payments, according to the Sun Sentinel's investigation.

Gallon did not face any criminal charges in Florida. The school board concluded that concerns he committed an "illegal act" by making payroll decisions without board authorization were not substantiated.

Tri-Star is currently working in eight states, according to the spokesman.

Griffin said Gallon's contract extends through the summer and she is not sure if the school will extend it but said based on his company's performance there is no reason to stop working together.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.