Education

Principal of El Camino charter high school will step down, ending drama over school's future

El Camino board members Scott Silverstein (left), Jon Wasser and Jackie Keene meet in the library of El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills on Mon., Oct. 17, 2016. After a brief public comment period, the board moved into closed session. They met ahead of the Los Angeles Unified School Board's scheduled to vote on whether to take the second of three steps necessary to revoke El Camino's charter.
El Camino board members Scott Silverstein (left), Jon Wasser and Jackie Keene meet in the library of El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills on Mon., Oct. 17, 2016. After a brief public comment period, the board moved into closed session. They met ahead of the Los Angeles Unified School Board's scheduled to vote on whether to take the second of three steps necessary to revoke El Camino's charter.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

El Camino Real Charter High School's principal – whose use of an employee credit card became a key focus of a Los Angeles Unified School District inquiry at the school – will resign next week as part of a deal with district officials that ends a long-running drama about the school's future.

Along with El Camino's attorney and board president, executive director David Fehte himself hammered out the deal with district officials just hours before L.A. Unified School Board was set to vote Tuesday whether to take the second of three steps necessary to revoke the charter of one of the district's largest and highest-profile charter schools.

Under the terms of the deal, which L.A. Unified School Board members approved by a 6-1 vote, four members of El Camino's governing board will also step down before next February.

Members of El Camino's board must still approve the deal in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding at their regular meeting on Oct. 26. If they decline, the district would resume charter revocation proceedings.

Over the last year, L.A. Unified officials have been raising questions about charges on several El Camino employees made on their school-issued credit cards. Steak dinners, hotel stays and airline travel transactions on Fehte's card — the subject of a May story in the Los Angeles Daily News — drew particularly close scrutiny.

L.A. Unified officials characterized these charges as "seemingly exorbitant, personal and … improper." El Camino's governing board says there are legitimate explanations for some of the transactions the district flagged and that new financial policies they enacted should prevent future problems.

"I will do what it takes to preserve this charter which we all worked so hard to establish," Fehte said in an emailed statement.

"While I am personally disappointed," his statement continued, "with the unnecessary way that the media chose to unjustly sensationalize ECR operational inefficiencies, I welcome this opportunity to move our school forward and focus attention back to the students we serve, and enable our teaching staff to do what they do best — educate students."

While the board has denied applications to renew existing charters or open new ones in the last five years, the district's decision to open charter revocation proceedings against the Woodland Hills school was a rare step in itself: before El Camino, staff in L.A. Unified's Charter School Division had recommended issuing "Notices of Intent to Revoke" to six schools since 2013. Five of those charters are still open today.

As in those prior cases, whether Fehte continued as the school's executive director had been a sticking point between El Camino leaders and L.A. Unified officials.

Following the district school board's initial step toward revoking the school's charter, El Camino's board said Fehte agreed to take a pay cut and announced plans to sever ties with its chief business officer.

But charter schools facing similar scrutiny in the past had only ended L.A. Unified's revocation proceedings with harsher disciplinary action against employees.

In January 2014, district officials threatened to hit Garr Academy of Mathematics and Entrepreneurial Studies ("GAMES") with a "Notice of Intent to Revoke" its charter — the aforementioned second of three steps necessary to withdraw a charter school's operating authority.

But that never happened, according to an L.A. Unified board document from last March: "The revocation proceedings were suspended following GAMES’ agreement to make significant organizational changes, including reconstituting its governing board, and restructuring of its administrative and school personnel (including hiring new school site leadership)

A similar scenario played out again in May 2014 after an employee at Charter High School of the Arts - Multimedia and Performing (CHAMPS) "made significant unauthorized charges on a school credit card."

A week before L.A. Unified's board could vote on a Notice of Intent to Revoke, CHAMPS' executive director and chief financial officer resigned over their handling of the matter, according to the school's retelling of events. The L.A. Unified board withdrew their revocation threat not long afterward.

In November 2014, the board renewed CHAMPS' charter for another five years; the school is still open now.

El Camino's initial reluctance to part ways with Fehte had bitterly divided the school. Up until Tuesday, a faction of parents and teachers questioned why the board hadn't fired Fehte or requested his resignation.

But another faction said L.A. Unified had blown the matter out of proportion and that Fehte  — who had reimbursed the school for all $6,000 in personal charges he accrued over three years — had atoned for his mistakes.

They also doubted the district's ability to be an impartial judge of charter school performance when, some parents argued, L.A. Unified would benefit financially from closing charter schools.

"We're going to change these laws," said Daniel Holmes, a parent of an El Camino student, told L.A. Unified board members in a public comment session on Tuesday. "You can help by recusing yourself from the responsibility of watching over these charters.”