International Academy faces controversy

March 1, 2019

Oakland County's International Academy is now embroiled in a controversy involving a disgruntled former employee and principal Lynne Gibson over her involvement in the establishment of a private school in China known as Qingdao Okma International Academy.  

 

The International Academy is a public, tuition-free high school of choice for students from 13 Oakland County districts whose main campus is in Bloomfield Township; additional campuses are in White Lake and Troy. Enrolled students are required to earn both high school and International Baccalaureate (IB) degrees. The school was founded at the initiative of Lambert Okma, a former economics teacher at Lahser High School, who became the school's first principal when it opened in 1996. Okma retired at the end of the 2008-09 school year, when Gibson took over as principal. 

 

The school is run by a consortium of 13 districts – the joint steering committee. It currently has about 1,554 students. Gibson, as principal, is the chairwoman of the joint steering committee. Bloomfield Hills Schools is the fiscal agent, but does not run the school.

 

At issue isn't the academics in Bloomfield Township, but potential open meeting violations by the joint steering committee, and Gibson's involvement in the establishment in 2015 of a now-defunct International Academy in China established by Bert Okma, Gibson's husband. It was closed in June 2017, according to records, after it failed  financially to do well enough to stay open. A former teacher at the school, Steven Eschrich, sued Okma and IA China in Oakland County Circuit Court, alleging Okma fraudulently induced Eschrich to leave his teaching position at IA and move to China to help open that school. The suit was dismissed in November.

 

A former student of the Bloomfield school has also started a petition at change.org calling for the removal of principal Gibson over her involvement in the establishment of the private school in China. 

 

All allegations against Gibson were investigated by the joint steering committee, which found the principal had done nothing wrong, a Bloomfield Hills Schools spokesperson said.

 

In a letter to the Bloomfield Hills School Board, Gibson responded through her attorneys, Jackie Cook and Mike Cox, that in October 2016, “China IA, LLC, terminated Mr. Eschrich for cause from his position at China IA's school in China, the Quingdao International Academy (QIA), and since then, he has directed his anger at Mr. Okma and his wife, Principal Gibson, by unleashing an endless stream of personal attacks and defaming statements against them.”

 

 The attorneys noted that all of his claims had been dismissed by the Oakland Circuit Court in 2018. Despite that, the attorneys noted that Eschrich had repeatedly come before the school board to continue his complaints and allegations against Okma and Gibson, including at January and February 2019 meetings.

 

“We respectfully request that this Board follow suit (of Civil Court and) cease giving him a platform for lodging personal attack and publishing defamatory statements against Principal Gibson and Mr. Okma,” the letter continued. “We request that this Board accord his allegations no basis in fact or consideration in interactions, employment or future relations with Principal Gibson or Mr. Okma in the future.”

 

According to minutes of the February 2 Bloomfield Hills school board meeting, board president Paul Kolin addressed the issue, noting they were reviewing the practices of the joint steering committee and were committed to transparency.

 

“From this point on, all JSC meetings will comply with Michigan's Open Meetings Act and include posted agendas and minutes, public comment, and proper notice of time, date and location. In addition, we are in the process of posting all previous JSC minutes,” he stated.

 

“One issue that arose due to a formal 'chain of command' oversight structure is that of a 'China school' (also known as QIA) exchange program which was not well communicated to all the home districts' boards, and hence to the home districts' communities,” Kolin continued. 

 

To clarify any misperceptions and counter the petition demanding Gibson's removal, Kolin stated that in 2014, BHS sent Gibson and Laurie McCarty, then co-superintendent for curriculum, on a trip over a school break to China to look at facilities, geographic area and other logistics for a potential IA school in China – with no taxpayer funds utilized. 

 

“The purpose of the trip was to build a pillar of the IB program that Mr. Okma had always intended to include...a global perspective by immersion into a different culture,” Kolin stated. “The China school  opened and ran for two years before financial difficulty necessitated its closure...No member of the BHSD or administration was ever asked to invest money in a private school venture. We were not asked to recommend students or teachers...As a board, we were part of a system that left parents, students, teachers and staff with an insufficient oversight chain.”

 

He ended his statement by assuring the community they would “learn, grow and improve together.”

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