Education

LA Unified doesn't often revoke charters – but it's asking tough questions of one now

FILE - El Camino Real High School in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.
FILE - El Camino Real High School in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Patricia Nazario/KPCC

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Members of the Los Angeles Unified School Board will give El Camino Real Charter High School leaders one month to answer serious questions about its financial management practices, including allegations staff members used school credit cards for personal expenditures.

The "Notice of Violations" board members issued on Tuesday is the first step toward yanking the Woodland Hills school's charter.

But it takes three steps to revoke a charter's founding document, and recent history suggests the process does not often make to that conclusion.

Since August 2013, LAUSD Board of Education agendas show board members have considered taking the second step — issuing a "Notice of Intent to Revoke" — with six schools.

And it's taken the third and final step of revoking a school's charter even more rarely. Of the six schools who have received those notices, five are still open today.

"Everybody breathe," said board member Mónica García during Tuesday's meeting, which featured testimony from frustrated El Camino teachers, board members and officials.

El Camino supporters see the board's action Tuesday as a serious escalation. Janelle Ruley, an attorney representing the charter school's governing board, accused the district's charter schools division with "moving the goalposts" and setting unclear targets for El Camino to remain in compliance.

"The charter school responded timely and fully to all requests that were made," Ruley said. "It made policy changes and it made other changes requested by the charter schools division. El Camino truly believed that it had done what the charter schools division had asked and satisfied those concerns."

But district officials said further digging revealed more problems at El Camino. The Notice of Violations the board passed Tuesday identified numerous uses of school credit cards that district officials found problematic, including charges for airfare, hotel and dinners by principal David Fehte.

In May, the L.A. Daily News reported "Fehte acknowledged charging El Camino for personal travel and, after the Daily News inquired, said he reimbursed the public school."

A review of board actions since 2013 show schools can rebound from district revocation proceedings.

"It all depends on the charter school’s actions," said board president Steve Zimmer. "There is nothing that is even before us that will result in closure of El Camino or taking over El Camino."

In 2013, L.A. Unified moved to revoke the charter of Gifted Academy of Mathematics and Entrepreneurial Studies, or "GAMES."

But the district suspended revocation proceedings after GAMES leaders agreed to "make significant organizational changes, including reconstituting its governing board, and restructuring of its administrative and school personnel (including hiring new school site leadership)." This past March, GAMES even won renewal for its charter.

El Camino supporters expressed frustration with what they saw as a lack of clear communication from district officials.

Michael Mayotte, the school's chief business officer, said that while his name appeared on several of the transactions the district's charter schools division flagged, he can account for each of them in one way or another.

"None of those charges were personal," Mayotte said in board testimony. "All [the charter schools division] had to do was ask. They did not."

Mayotte declined in an interview after the meeting to go into detail about transactions involving other school officials, including Fehte. El Camino supporters said they would provide their own line-by-line rebuttal to the violations notice at a later time. 

But board member Scott Schmerelson said he was discouraged that El Camino supporters had painted the district as "the bad guy" for filling an oversight role.

"We like the school," he said. "We think it’s a great school. I don’t want to revoke the charter, it’s a great school. It is."

"But," Schmerelson added, "you have to play fair."

Under terms of the notice board members approved Tuesday, El Camino has until Sept. 23 to respond to the district.