Before the LAUSD School Board began debate on the Issuance of Notice of Violations for El Camino Real Charter High School (ECRCHS) “requesting the charter school remedy violations by September 23, 2016”, the public had an opportunity to speak. Other than a three-minute time limit, there is little formal structure to this comment period and speakers are free to bring up anything that they feel is relevant to the subject at hand. During this time, ECRCHS’ case was presented by their lawyer, several teachers (who were at the Board meeting instead of teaching their students), a couple of parents and the charter’s Chief Business Officer, Marshall Mayotte. Notably absent was David Fehte, the “Executive Director” who has been at the center of the controversy surrounding the charter.
Ironically, one of the first speakers used the analogy of Charlie Brown’s repeated attempt to kick Lucy’s football to make her case against the resolution at hand. She was trying to make a case that the LAUSD Charter School Division (CSD) had been moving the goal post so that ECRCHS could not meet the terms of the Notice to Cure that was issued in October. However, it was the speakers who engaged in diversionary tactics as they tried to take the emphasis off of the “financial shenanigans” by focusing on the academic achievements of the charter, the incompetence of the CSD and wild conspiracy theories that the District is trying to “take down” ECR because they “are thriving too much.” Despite evidence that ECR has violated the law and “generally accepted accounting principles” compiled by both the CSD and the Los Angeles Daily News, the speakers each requested that the Board not issue a Notice of Violations.
As noted by Board Member Scott Schmerelson, ECRCHS was a great school before it was a charter and continues with the same tradition. Despite the assertions of the speakers, ECRCHS is also not a victim; great academic achievement does not excuse the purchase of a “$95 bottle of fine Syrah wine” or “first-class airfare and luxury hotel rooms with [a] school-issued credit card.” The charter’s supporters who proclaim that they “expect support” in return for the “over $1 million” that the state has paid the LAUSD to oversee the operations of the charter sound like young adults proclaiming their independence while arguing that they should not pay rent to stay in their childhood bedroom. In choosing to break away from the District, they accepted responsibility for making sure that their “Executive Director” does not misuse his credit card and that their Governing Board meetings are held in accordance with the law. These same supporters also do not seem to understand that just because the CSD ignored these problems for “four years” does not mean that they get a permanent pass.
It should be noted that very little was said by these speakers to defend the charter against the actual allegations. Mayotte made the best attempt by going through a short list of credit charges that he said were misclassified by the CSD. Other errors were alleged but not specified.
The lack of representation by parents or staff members supporting the notice may be due to the intimidation that has been felt by those who have spoken against the charter’s management in the past. In one of the most extreme examples, a letter was sent to an employer warning that their employee was “involved in an attempt to destroy the reputation of a charter school here in Los Angeles” and cautioning the employer that “this kind of behavior [by his employee affects] the image of your business”. The letter did acknowledge that “the school has had a few issues with finances” but seemed to ignore the seriousness of the Notice of Violations when it stated that ECRCHS has “been working with the LA school district to correct these things.” The letter was signed by “John Smith”.
After the public speakers, the board was addressed by José Cole-Gutiérrez, Director of the CSD and former staff member of the California Charter School Association. He did not explain why it has taken his employees ten months to follow up on the original notice to cure or why an LAUSD employee had visited “the charter school at the end of [the] last school year and stated that everything looked good”. The answer probably lies with the fact that the Daily News had brought these violations to the public eye and they could no longer be ignored. He also defended himself against the charter’s allegations of sloppy work by stating that the lack of adequate record keeping by ECRCHS made it hard to discern the true nature of these charges.
Before voting, the Board members took their turns questioning Cole-Gutiérrez and making the case for their decision. ECRCHS did not give her much with which to work but Mónica García still made an attempt to earn the $119,858.40 in contributions that she has already received from the charter industry for next year’s election. After acknowledging “concern about some of the behavior that came to light at some point”, she confused Cole-Gutiérrez by referring to the hearing as “the beginning of a conversation of how we are going to fix issues” and “an opportunity for all of us.” As previously reported, the CSD issued a notice to cure last October, so the conversation started more than ten months ago. If anything, it is closer to the end than the beginning; ECRCHS must either fix its problems or lose its charter. It is also unclear why García chose to use the pronoun “we” as ECRCHS is an independent charter and the issues stated in the Notice of Violations are solely their responsibility. It is also hard to see how correcting these violations is an “opportunity” for anyone involved in the conversation.
Next Garcia appeared to confuse the entire Board by requesting that they hear “from an El Camino representative” since she had “heard that things are inaccurate.” She wanted “the people who have come here to say something was wrong to give them a floor to say these and these and these things are wrong” because she didn’t “think they had a presentation.” George McKenna correctly pointed out that they had an opportunity to make their case during public comment. Garcia said that she “would make a motion” but acknowledged that “the motion would lose.” As pointed out by Board President Steve Zimmer, the process started with the Notice of Violations does allow for ECRCHS to defend itself against any errors that it feels are contained in the notice. It is, therefore, unclear why Garcia was pushing for them to receive a do-over in this hearing.
The @LASchools Twitter feed stated that the “Board voted 6-0 to issue the notice of violation to El Camino Real Charter High School. Board Member Garcia was absent”, but the record shows that the entire Board voted to issue the notice of violations. However, that was the easy vote since no penalties have yet been imposed on the charter. As the deadline approaches, it will be interesting to see how serious the LAUSD Board is about enforcing full compliance with the law. This is where the charter industries spending on School Board elections may really start to pay off.