Education

El Camino charter school's principal to take pay cut, top official to leave amid LAUSD inquiry

El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016.
El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

El Camino Real Charter High School executive director Dave Fehte has agreed to take a pay cut and the school’s chief business officer will leave by the end of December, the latest fallout from an investigation into what Los Angeles Unified School District officials have called potentially “improper” transactions made with school funds. 

The board of the Woodland Hills charter school announced the moves in a letter released late Wednesday night following a four-hour closed session — the third such meeting the board's held since L.A. Unified took a preliminary step toward revoking El Camino’s charter in late August.

According to the letter, signed by Fehte, the executive director “has agreed to restructure his contract (resulting in a reduction of base salary and contract term and establishment of performance benchmarks), as a sign of moving forward.”

Chief Business Officer Marshall Mayotte will also vacate his post “effective Dec. 31, 2016 or earlier.” The letter, also signed by board president Jonathan Wasser, did not go into detail about whether Mayotte was leaving voluntarily.

“The Board understands that the sacred trust of the public was seriously shaken,” the letter said.

In August, L.A. Unified School Board members issued a “Notice of Violations” to El Camino, the first of three steps necessary for revoking the school’s charter authorization.

Fehte’s use of his school-issued employee credit card featured prominently in that notice. District staff said their allegations stemmed from a review of 425 transactions on El Camino employee credit cards. District staff flagged 43 of these transactions — 18 of which were on Fehte’s card — as either out-of-line or as evidence of weak money-management policies at the school.

Among those were charges Fehte incurred for steak dinners, hotel stays, department store purchases and travel for his side job as a pro basketball scout, as the Los Angeles Daily News has reported.

Many top El Camino officials have defended Fehte, reporting that he reimbursed the school for all personal transactions “inadvertently” charged to his card — $6,000 racked up over three years. They also have also criticized L.A. Unified’s characterization of the charges as “improper,” saying many of the flagged transactions were entirely above-board.

In two earlier closed-door meetings where “Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release” was on the agenda, El Camino’s board did not fire any top employees. They did discipline an unspecified employee or employees, Wasser had said at the time.

A faction of the school's teaching staff worried anything short of Fehte's departure left El Camino's charter at risk.

They point to a clause in L.A. Unified’s Notice of Violations letter from late August, which charged El Camino’s board “has not provided any evidence that the responsible employees have been held accountable for this misuse of public funds, and those employees remain in their administrative positions.”

But some of Fehte’s defenders suspect L.A. Unified is bent on revoking the school’s charter anyway, regardless of whether the board were to take harsher disciplinary action.

“It’s time to show a united front,” said Brian Finley, a West Hills resident whose son attends El Camino, “and publicly and clearly support them and focus on the real battle — which is with LAUSD.”

Revoking a charter is a three-step process that begins with a Notice of Violations. Since Aug. 2013, L.A. Unified's Charter Schools Division has only taken the second step — issuing a "Notice of Intent to Revoke" — with six schools. Five of those schools are still open today.

But whether they've supported Fehte or advocated his removal, few El Camino parents or teachers seem to take comfort in that record. Many see the district's inquiry as a serious threat.

“The [El Camino] Board and Charter School leadership are united," the letter said, "toward the end of preserving the [school’s] charter."