Monday, June 19, 2017

PA: Islamophobes, Real Estate, and Scam Artists

I'll tell you right up front that this story raises more questions than it answers, but many of them are questions about just what comes through the door when you invite privatization in, and others are questions about how people react when they discover what an open door actually means.

The New Castle Youth Development Center was set up in about 1967 as a facility for dealing with "felonious youth." It was on almost 150 acres in rural Shenango Township, and it didn't attract a lot of attention (except for that time, back in the 1987-1988 season when its high school won the Western PA basketball championship).

In 2013, the state announced that the facility was closing. There were reasons given, but the math was pretty obvious. 210 employees. 100 beds. $19.4 million annual budget. 31 youths being held there. The end came quickly and local folks kicked, but the state-- which owned the facility-- was unmoved.

The state's intent was to sell the facility, but like many starry-eyed investment-minded homeowners, the state didn't read the market for fifty-year-old juvenile justice facilities in the middle of nowhere very well. They set an asking price of four million. Absolutely nobody bid. The property sat there, presumably getting no more attractive, the state's aspirations decreasing. A local coalition looked at buying the place with an eye to some sort of private-public partnership develop thing. That didn't happen, either.

Finally, this year, three bids came in. The top bid was $400,000, and the state said, "Sold!!"

And then local folks found out who the buyers were.

The top bid came from Hira Educational Services of North America, a New Jersey educational consulting group. That specializes in consulting work with Islamic schools. They look like a typical private school consulting group, the kind of group that has sprung up all over to help amateur hour school launchers navigate all the paperwork and finances of running an actual school.

Since the establishment of HESNA, over 200+ Islamic institutions and organizations throughout the United States have received counsel in the areas of strategic planning, board development, capital campaigns, recruitment searches, and executive coaching.

Reaction to the news has been... well, let's go with "not always representing the most egalitarian inclusive spirit of American diversity." Looking through the comments sections of local newspaper articles about this news is not for the faint-hearted; "horrible racist blather" covers much of it. Local authorities, like the county commissioners, were concerned that they knew nothing about their new neighbors-- including what those neighbors intend to do with the property. The story has also sent ripples out into the national wing-nut blogosphere (for example, this offensive racist post from a site called the Powdered Wig society; the Daily Caller has also picked up the story).

At this point in the story, we can stop to say, "I told you so." It was fairly predictable that the same folks who call for choice and vouchers and freedom from "government schools" (like, say, the Daily Caller) and who want to see tax dollars support religious schools were going to be shocked and upset when it turned out that "religious school" didn't automatically mean "Christian school." So, yeah-- if you want your tax dollars to "follow the child," some of your tax dollars are going to follow the child straight into an Islamic school, or a Buddhist school, or a satanic school, or (I'm just waiting) a Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster school. Bottom line-- intolerant racist folk are not going to like some of the side effects of a choice policy.

But the story isn't quite that simple, because like many of these school consulting groups, HESNA looks kind of hinky.

For a group that has helped "200+" institutions, HESNA has a very tiny online footprint. Their LinkedIn page says nothing. Bizpedia indicates HESNA was founded in 2011. Asif Kunwar is listed as the founder and president of HESNA, but he's also left few footprints on line (though there is an Asif Kunwar who was a student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2010-2011). And the New Castle News learned that while Kunwar didn't sign the HESNA bid, one of the other two bids was a personal bid submitted under his name. The News also tried to track phone numbers for the group and found contradictory messes.The name is not helpful-- HIRA turns up in the name of many organizations, likely as a reference to the Cave of Hira, where Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed.

The website. Well. Links don't really go where you'd expect them to-- like subheadings that all lead to the same page. The subscription link for their e-newsletter is dead, is the link for viewing the latest edition of that newsletter. The facebook and twitter links just loop back to the HENSA page. Misspelled words. On one screen they declare "We arrange the occassionals events for the students to perform and watch show." They have a whole slide about "discriminition." A vision that doesn't seem tightly connected to reality--

To become top educational services consultant in North America.

The only thing the site gets remotely specific about is E-Rate, a grant program buried about five bureaucratic layers down in the FCC which gets tech stuff to schools and libraries. Your school may well be involved-- the program throws around about $2.5 billion annually. And just in case you're wondering about the criteria for E-Rate, HENSA's got your back: "The eligibility criteria or pre-requisites to acquire E-Rate discounts are well-defined and the recipients of the discount(s) must meet the required conditions." Hope that clears it up for you.

This guy may not have a clue what he's talking about. He may be one of the many groups that have sprung up to cash in by offering "consulting help" to private school entrepreneurs, and going Islamic is just his market niche. On the other hand, the infamous Gulen chain of charters appears to be a giant scam to use US tax dollars to fund a Turkish rebel government in exile. One thing that seems clear-- this is not a seasoned professional who knows his way around the private school world.

So like many groups we've seen spring up to get their hands on some of those sweet, sweet privatized education dollars, what we've got here is probably either some small time amateur bumbling around or some mid-level scam artist. But add a bunch of Islamophobic reaction,  and Pennsylvania may well blow this whole bad real estate deal up into some sort of ugly mess (it may also come to crashing halt when his first check bounces).  This is the awesome power of the private sector and the free market teaming up with state government, religion, real estate deals, and education. It could all be legit, it could be something shady, or it could be twelve types of baloney. Bottom line is that right now, nobody really knows.

1 comment:

  1. I'm close to this situation and working on it daily. I think you are closer to the truth than most of the other speculation. Buyer is a con artist but is not conning muslim schools and rarely ever works with them which explains the awkward stock photography, lack of documentation, etc on the website. We've uncovered evidence that he has a history of bidding on properties, the purchase making waves locally due to the strange nature of the organization he is using at the time (he's created many fictitious name entities), the government in an awkward situation tries to nix the deal, he sues for discrimination. Won something close to $2 million in New Jersey doing this. Probably will do it here.