In 1993, Bishop Donald Clay, senior pastor of Petra International Ministries, founded Imani Christian Academy, a Christian-centered school serving at-risk African-American students. Since it’s humble start with 30 students in the home of Bishop Clay’s sister, the academy has grown to a K-12 with more than 200 students.
BISHOP DONALD CLAY
Now, 19 years after Bishop Clay’s vision for the school was first inspired, he finds himself on the outside looking in. Last month, after a hard fought battle for control of the school he gave birth to, Imani’s board of directors ousted Bishop Clay along with the other members of his church.
“The school was started pretty much by the church, my sister and I, and we brought in board members over the years,” Bishop Clay said. “Looking back I can see that a great part of what was developing over the years was that the people on the board needed to be able to write checks so that resulted in individuals coming on the board who were not really in tune with what we were doing.”
The vote to oust Bishop Clay and other board members from Petra came after months of disagreements about the direction of the school and allegations by board members of financial misconduct by Petra members. Ultimately, even though Bishop Clay founded the school, he has next to no power to challenge the board’s decision and regain control of Imani.
“We’re looking at all of our alternatives. The process by which (the board) arrived at a lot of their decisions is unclear so we’ve been investigating what are our legal alternatives. There has to be integrity in the process of coming to decisions. We’ve been contacted by many, many parents as well as alumni. They want to do something. We’ve gotten a lot of requests to start another school and that’s something we’re praying on,” Bishop Clay said. “There’s really unfortunately an insensitivity to the voice of African-Americans. To (the board), our investment in the school did not compare to the checks they had written.”
From the beginning, Bishop Clay, who originally served as board chair, says the formation of a board of directors was never meant to eliminate his and the church’s control of the school. Still, in order to run and fund a private school, Imani needed board members to bring in donors.
The board’s bylaws were crafted to give Petra 49 percent control and to make Bishop Clay a permanent member of the board and executive committee. However, a few weeks ago, the board voted to remove this piece of the board’s bylaws, giving them the tool they needed to vote Bishop Clay off the board of directors and essentially sever his ties to the school.
“(Board members) were coming in based on relationships with others on the board and what we ended up with was a board that didn’t really understand our vision. What that led to was a disagreement with how to run the school,” he said. “Decisions started being made that were obviously not inclusive of the entire board and particularly myself and the people who were part of the church.”
According to Bishop Clay, trouble at Imani began when the school started to stray from it’s spiritual focus. In order to balance the school’s commitment to a spiritual and academic education, Imani’s administration was previously broken down into a headmaster and principal.
“When we formed the board, the spirit of the formation was that people saw we were having a lot of success with the impact we were having on the kids. These were individuals who saw what we were doing and how we were doing it,” Bishop Clay said. “Our school was really different. Our environment was designed to be very worshipped filled.”
Under the guidance of Headmaster Milton Raiford, the school’s environment used to be one where teachers would stop class for prayer if a student was struggling. Now, Clay says the school’s spiritual commitment and the integration of Christianity into the curriculum has been diminished and Raiford has been placed on administrative leave and likewise removed from the board.
“Milton at this time had invested 16 years of his life and to be honest, Milton was Imani, Imani was successful because of Milton, he was just uniquely called to do it. He has the ability to impact children in a way no other school system could,” Bishop Clay said. “The reason parents have sent their children to this school was because of that commitment to Christian values.”
While many on the board have chosen a side on the issue, newer member Gregory Spencer is torn. When Spencer joined the board last year, there was already division between members of Petra and the board members.
“When I got there, there was already a lot of mistrust between the leadership in the board and the leadership of Imani from Petra,” Spencer said. “My view of the board is that they’re fine Christian people. I believe they’re Christians with good hearts. They not only give of their resources from a financial aspect, but they give of their time as well.”
Still, due to his background growing up in the Black church, Spencer abstained from the vote to oust Bishop Clay and the other members of Petra. He said one of his biggest concerns is that spirituality continues to play an integral role in the education of Imani’s students.
“The bigger debate at the end of the day is trying to find a balance between decisions that are made by the head master as a spiritual authority. You can’t educate kids until you get to them first,” Spencer said. “My personal struggle is that I can’t get over the issue that I grew up in a Black church.”
As a testament to the school’s success, in 2010, Imani had 14 female and 13 male graduates. That year, 13 graduates went on to attend four-year colleges, 11 attend the Community College of Allegheny County, one entered the Navy, and two entered the workforce.
Board Chair Cliff Benson said he would send a statement on behalf of the board, but the Courier had not received it by press time.