The Cost of Independence

In  2011, a group of educators at El Camino Real High School,  inspired by a desire for more autonomy and flexibility in instructional practices, curriculum, governance, and finances, led the school’s conversion to an independent charter school.

-El Camino Real Charter High School (ECRCHS) Web Site

While the bloated bureaucracy of the LAUSD is certainly not a model of efficient governance, the extra sets of eyes pointed at a school site does make it more difficult for a site administrator to go rogue. This makes it harder for schools to be innovative with their academic programs and is a reason why the District needs to learn to sometimes stay out of the way. However, it also means that financial improprieties are more likely to be discovered. Given the recent reports of “lavish credit card use” by ECRCHS’ principal, one has to wonder if the school’s administration knew this when they converted the school to a charter seeking “more autonomy and flexibility” in their finances. After all, it hard to imagine an LAUSD principal being able to use a “school-issued American Express card to charge $100,000 over two years” including $885.96 for an itinerary made out to “Mr. David Patrick Fehte/San Antonio Spurs.”

This desired “autonomy” has also made it easier for the administration to hide information from parents and other stakeholders. As an example, at the special Board meeting on July 19, 2016, the Governing Board went into closed session to discuss a “significant exposure to litigation pursuant to paragraph (2) or (3) of subdivision (d) of Section 54956.9: 1 case”. A parent who asked for more details was told that “the agenda item that mentions lawsuit/ litigation is a generic one that is used when discussing possible litigation or a potential lawsuit. I cannot discuss specifics of a closed session agenda item.” As a comparison, the LAUSD Board cites the same governing code when going into closed session, but also provides the names of the cases that they are discussing, such as “California Charter Schools Association v. Los Angeles Unified School District Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. BC 438336”.

Since the LAUSD requires charters under its jurisdiction to conform to California’s Public Records Act (PRA), the parent followed up by asking for “any legal filings served on the school in the last year.” The response came back from the Law Offices of Young, Minney & Corr, LLP and stated that because of the “breadth” of the PRA request, the school “will need to search for, collect, and appropriately examine a voluminous amount of separate and distinct records that were demanded in your single request” (emphasis mine). Therefore, a response will not be forthcoming until August 12, 2016.

This delay tactic posing as a response leads to a couple of questions. First, how is it that a law firm has to “search for” legal filings that only occurred within the past year? One would think that these would be organized in a file marked “El Camino Real Charter High School” and easily referenceable by the lawyers being paid to represent the charter. However, the more important question is just exactly how many times has ECRCHS been served with legal filings in the past 12 months? A “voluminous amount” of legal records generated within a year seems like a lot for a single school.