Imani Christian Academy ousts founder and headmaster

Matthew Santoni
| Thursday, July 5, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Both the founder and the longtime headmaster of Imani Christian Academy in East Hills have been ousted by the board of directors over disagreements as to how the charter school should be run, officials said.

Bishop Donald Clay of Petra International Ministries, who founded the school for troubled black youths in 1993; Elder Milton Raiford, the school's headmaster since 1995; and Arthur “Jim” Balthrop III and his wife, Connie Balthrop, two other members of Petra, were all voted off the board late last month, effectively severing the Penn Hills-based church from the K-12 school.

“We could not agree on the direction of the school,” Cliff Benson of Sewickley, chairman of the Imani board, said on Wednesday. “It makes no sense to have a board that can't agree on anything.”

Clay said he and the board differed on the role that his church and religion in general should play in the charter school. When he founded it, the bishop said, he believed Imani should have elements of worship in every class and lesson; that school staff and students should form a family relationship to help students lacking such structures at home; and that a child could not learn as long as he or she was mentally or spiritually “broken.”

Those disagreements spilled over into matters of whether education or spirituality would have the predominant role in teaching, running the school and hiring staff, Clay said.

“(The board members) were leaning more towards ‘does this person have the credentials we're looking for?' while I was leaning more towards ‘does this person have the heart, the relationship with God and the ability to connect with the children that we're looking for?'” Clay said.

Early this year, the board appointed a “head of school” to assume some of Raiford's responsibilities as he resumed his career as an attorney. Raiford later was placed on administrative leave and replaced as headmaster before being removed from the board.

Raiford believes he and some board members struggled with differences of political opinion and what he said publicly about the black community. He cited an argument he had with a conservative radio host over the problem of obesity among poor black men, which Raiford attributed to poor nutrition and few alternatives to processed, unhealthy food rather than overeating.

“Imani became an example of people saying, ‘I'm not giving unless you say what I say,'” Raiford said. “I don't want young African-American males to see that they need to bow down to moneyed interests.”

In a statement released after the vote, the board said it had spent more than a year trying to work through “differences of opinion” before it became clear that “the best outcome for the families of Imani is for Imani and Petra to each go its own way.”

“Petra has indicated to the Board that they may start a new school at their church property and we believe that multiple and different educational options benefit the community as a whole,” the statement said.

Imani and Petra had shared an empty department store building since 1996, until the school moved to the former East Hills Elementary in 2009.

Clay said he and others at Petra were praying and deliberating over whether they would try to get back into Imani or start another school. Meanwhile, the board statement said Imani would continue its faith-based mission, working with other inner-city churches and ministries.

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