Education “reformers” claim that charters were created “as testing grounds for new and alternative educational models”. However, if these publicly funded private schools were actually engaging in innovation, it would seem that a high percentage of them would fail. After all, playing it safe is rarely a recipe for successfully making radical changes. However, in the LAUSD, there has been only been one charter revocation in the past three years. This hardly seems to back up El Camino Real Charter High School’s (ECRCHS) assertion that “the district has become more hostile towards charter schools.”
In the case of ECRCHS, the Notice of Violations did not revolve around academic achievement as the school has “been considered a generally successful campus both before and after 2011, when it converted to charter status”. Instead, the District is accusing ECRCHS management of “possible inappropriate spending, poor accounting and oversight, and violations of public-meeting rules.” In addition to the “financial shenanigans” previously outlined in a series of Los Angeles Daily News articles, the recently released corresponse between ECRCHS and the LAUSD Charter School Division (CSD) shows that concerns have been raised about the Special Education Program, school purchases of alcohol with public funds, the purchase of two pianos, the International Student Exchange Program including recruitment trips by administrators for this program, financial transactions with Village Nation, “Jeff Falgien’s role at ECRCHS and...payments that have been made to Keyboard Concepts” and a “demonstrated lack of accountability to which ECRA [El Camino Real Alliance, the Governing Board of ECRCHS] holds its employees.”
While ECRCHS continues to maintain that it is “working cooperatively with LAUSD’s Charter School Division” and has been “completely transparent”, the released documents tell a different story. For example, the Board President of ECRA wrote to the CSD on November 3, 2015, that “any time an ECRA credit card was used for personal use, ECRA collected the personal reimbursement before paying the credit card bill.” However, on April 12, 2016, they provided an American Express bill and “a reimbursement check from David Fehte covering the cost of a hotel stay near an airport.” This bill is dated July 28, 2015, and states that it is due on August 12, 2015. Despite the earlier assurances by ECRCHS that they are reimbursed before paying the bill, Fehte’s check was issued on September 3, 2015. Furthermore, the amount that he reimbursed was $450.85 for what appears to be a trip to Canada. This corresponds to the total of four charges on the bill that are marked “personal”. These included not only the hotel room but charges for two restaurants and a limousine service. Four charges in one trip seems to contradict Fehte’s previous public assertions that he “inadvertently charged a few personal expenses on my school credit card” (emphasis mine) and that he has “always” immediately reimbursed the school for these charges.
In a letter dated July 8, 2016, which Fehte has described as being “inflammatory”, the CSD made note of the fact that the ECRCHS charter states that the Governing Board is “responsible for the direct supervision of its Executive Director” including “the duty to ‘supervise, evaluate, discipline and [for] dismissal.’” Given the allegations against management, “the District has serious concerns regarding the demonstrated lack of accountability to which ECRA holds its employees.”
ECRCHS response to this accusation was that the letter “makes an assumption about employee discipline without any actual inquiry into the same.” However, instead of defending its position, the Governing Board states in the next sentence that “the occurrence or nonoccurrence of employee discipline is irrelevant to a consideration of whether ECRA and ECRCHS are operating lawfully and within the District’s expectations.” It then doubles down by stating that the “CSD surely knows, that closed session Board discussions of Public Employee Performance Evaluation and Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release are legally required to remain confidential” and that “employment records must also be kept confidential.” Perhaps the CSD would not have been in this position if the District had done their due diligence and appointed a member to the Governing Board as is allowed by law. In any case, the CSD knows that after allegations of severe financial improprieties, the Executive Director remains at the helm of a school and that there has not been a public reprimand.
It seems to be a recurring theme that ECRCHS declares that it “fully intends to remain transparent in all of its operations” but then uses legal maneuverings to avoid transparency. For example, the Governing Board went into closed session during a special Board meeting on July 19, 2016 declaring that they needed to discuss a “significant exposure to litigation pursuant to paragraph (2) or (3) of subdivision (d) of Section 54956.9: 1 case”. However, when asked to provide a copy of the legal filings for the case that was being discussed, the school’s law firm states that “there are no documents responsive to your request in the possession of ECR.” How is it possible to have a case without any legal paperwork? Furthermore, they refuse to release any paperwork distributed to the Board during this session, claiming that it is “privilege[d]”, “confidential” and “attorney work product”.
This unwillingness of ECRCHS to be transparent about the school’s governance is part of the “arrogance” that LAUSD Board Member Scott Schmerelson referenced during the hearing on the Notice of Violations. It is the same attitude that is displayed when Fehte complains about a report yet to be released that “is being crafted in a way that will put ECRCHS in a negative light” or when the school’s responses to the press are made by an employee of a public relations company. It shows a management culture that is more interested in diverting attention from problems than fixing them. When the District’s deadline is reached, one has to wonder if the ECRCHS Board will have spent any time on compliance or do they think that it is better to just work at influencing public opinion? Perhaps they will just bet the farm on the fact that the LAUSD rarely follows through.