Which system gets more funding? Well, it depends on how you count the dollars.
William Flannigan, azcentral

The head of the Arizona Charter Schools Association said Monday that the organization “made a serious error” when its chief operating officer used inside information to channel clients to his side business.

Charter association Chief Operating Officer Robert Di Bacco with his wife owns a student-recruitment company that helped 32 students displaced by the recent closure of a central Phoenix charter school to find a new campus.

One charter school, Self Development Academy, or SDA, paid Di Bacco’s company $550 for every child from the defunct charter who enrolled. Six did, giving Di Bacco about $3,300.

Charter group backtracks

Arizona Charter Schools Association President and CEO Eileen Sigmund had defended that business arrangement, and the association took to Twitter on Monday to criticize the Republic story reporting that Di Bacco had directed the displaced students to his company.

After The Republic on Monday learned Di Bacco co-owns Enrollment Experts with his wife, Paola Leyton Salas, the charter association reversed course. Sigmund said the money SDA paid Enrollment Experts for bringing in six new students would be refunded.

“When we were notified mid-last week about the immediate pending closure of a Phoenix-area charter school, our first concern at the Arizona Charter Schools Association was to identify quality school alternatives for those students and families.

“Unfortunately, in our haste, we made a serious error in judgment in utilizing a local student recruiter – the wife of an Association employee – to assist in contacting affected families with school placement options.

“This was a mistake. In attempting to rectify this situation, the recruiter has agreed to forfeit or refund any payment she would have received due to her referral of students. As an Association, we are reviewing our internal conflict-of-interest policies to make certain this situation cannot happen again,” Sigmund said in a statement.

Executive an ‘outstanding employee’

Jay Heiler, the association’s chairman, said Di Bacco’s position with the association would not change.

“He’s an outstanding employee who is very dedicated,” said Heiler, who is also board president of charter chain Great Hearts Academies. “He made the mistake in trying to place kids in a suitable school in a short time frame, but it’s still a mistake. We will take steps to make sure nothing like this happens again.”

Di Bacco did not respond to calls or emails. Leyton Salas hung up when contacted by The Republic.

The charter association did not answer whether Di Bacco had previously used inside information to benefit his company. 

Bacco is one of three association officials responsible for matching services from independent contractors with charter schools.

‘She will take good care of you’

Di Bacco, last week contacted SySTEM Principal Melodie Brewer to request the names, addresses and phone numbers of the affected families. The school closed Friday because of small enrollment.

Di Bacco told Brewer he knew someone who could find new schools for the displaced pupils.

“He said he had a consultant, and the consultant was his wife,” said Brewer, whose school emphasized science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “He said, ‘She will take good care of you.'”

Di Bacco didn’t disclose his interest in the company, according to Brewer.

Leyton Salas is paid recruiter for Self Development Academy, or SDA, also a Phoenix charter school. 

Vernette Madsen, SDA’s administrator, told The Republic that SDA pays Enrollment Experts $550 from its state education funding for each child enrolled.

Madsen said Leyton Salas has worked for SDA for the past three years. For some of that time her husband co-owed the company. Arizona Corporation Commission records show Di Bacco has since March 2017 owned at least 20 percent of the recruiting service for charter schools.

No-bid deals like Leyton Salas’ consulting contract with SDA would be illegal at traditional public schools, but they have become common at charter schools.

‘They will try to deflect’

Charter schools are funded on a per-pupil basis from state tax dollars. Therefore, more students equal more state funding.

Sigmund on Friday said Leyton Salas was selected to help place the SySTEM Phoenix students because she is knowledgeable about schools in central Phoenix and is bilingual. Many SySTEM families are Spanish speakers.

Kelly Horn is principal of Create Academy, an elementary school that fed into SySTEM. He raised concerns last week about the insider dealing at the association and was criticized by Sigmund.

Sigmund blasted Create’s low state test scores. More than half of Create’s students who took the state standardized tests were identified as being “economically disadvantaged,” according to the state Department of Education. The school’s homeless population is 30 percent, while 80 percent of the students qualify for the federal government’s free and reduced lunch, Horn said.

“They will try to deflect how bad our school is and not how unethical they are,” Horn said. “The issue was the (chief operating officer’s) wife was given the list of the students before anyone else and she was getting paid to refer families. My (association) dues should not be used to do that.”

Horn said Leyton Salas contacted five families with students at his school and all were urged to enroll at SDA.

Horn said he believes he prevented Leyton Salas from taking any of his students.

“I think we managed to salvage our enrollment,” Horn said.

Reach the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8478 or on Twitter @charrisazrep.

Throughout 2018, investigative reporter Craig Harris examines the finances of some of Arizona’s most prominent charter schools to reveal how they spend the tax dollars they receive, who profits off the operations and what those deals mean for the future of education.



Craig Harris, a senior reporter for, examines BASIS Phoenix South Primary, a new charter school, and tries to find out how taxpayer
dollars are being spent at the successful chain of charter schools. Tom Tingle/


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