Audit of school connected to board candidate stirs political waters
Craig Clough | April 30, 2015
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The release of an audit of a charter school co-founded by school board candidate Ref Rodriguez is heating up the waters of the already boiling LA Unified District 5 school board race.
One day after reports emerged that a school board member, Monica Garcia, tried to delay the release of the audit, conducted by the district’s Office of the Inspector General, the district made it public yesterday: It found that Lakeview Charter Academy has problems with finances, proper oversight, record-keeping and in some instances, training.
Rodriguez co-founded PUC Schools, which now has 14 charter schools operating in LA Unified, including Lakeview, and another in New York. He stepped down from running the organization in 2009 and now serves on the board of directors.
The Los Angeles Times, which was the first to release the audit, reported that the problems are not on the level that would result in the school shutting down, but that hasn’t stopped Rodriguez’s political foes, led by the teachers union, UTLA, from attempting to capitalize on the news.
“Ref Rodriguez has shown that he isn’t capable of managing 16 schools. How can we trust him to manage over 1,000 public schools with transparency and accountability?” the LA teachers union, UTLA, said in a statement. UTLA is supporting Rodriguez’s opponent in the May 19 runoff election, the incumbent, Bennett Kayser.
UTLA also said, “The audit shows that the situation at PUC Lakeview Charter Academy was so serious that it calls into question whether the school can even continue to exist.” Nothing in the audit said Lakeview was at risk of being closed.
While the timing of the release, within three weeks of the election, gives the appearance of an October Surprise, the audit was initiated almost two years ago as part of a random review of charter schools — and long before Rodriguez had given any public indication he would seek a board seat.
Nonetheless, it now gives opponents a strong talking point, although it’s unclear just how much of an impact it might have on what is already the most ideological divisive among the three school board races to be decided. Not only is a low turnout expected — just 12 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the District 5 primary — the LA Times did not put either of two stories about the audit in its print editions.
Whatever the impact on the election, factions have been spending big to determine the outcome. Including money spent during the primary, which Rodriguez won, groups for and against the two candidates have invested well over $2 million in the campaign — most of it by the political action committees for the California Charter Schools Association for Rodriguez and UTLA for Kayser.
Citing unnamed sources, the Times reported yesterday that the effort to withhold the report was requested by Garcia, a political ally of Rodriguez as both receive support from the charter school movement. She has not commented publicly on the assertion. Privately, officials in the reform movement say this could pose a bigger problem down the line for her than for Rodriguez. Garcia would face reelection in 2017.
Among the problems the audit found was that the school did not maintain proper documentation about its meetings and the training its staff received on child abuse and neglect reporting. It also found fiscal oversight deficiencies and that the school has been fiscally insolvent for nine years.
“There were questions about how diligently the PUC Lakeview Terrace Board and the PUC National monitored the budgetary problems of Lakeview Charter Academy,” the audit said. “This observation is based on the fact that for nine straight years of school operations, the Lakeview Charter Academy had poor financial results and was fiscally insolvent.”
The audit made some recommendations and said corrective actions by PUC have already begun.
“We were aware of the financial situation of the school,” PUC’s chief executive Jacqueline Elliot told LA School Report today. “The audit did not reveal something we did not know. We had done our own independent audits, and our board was aware of the findings.”
She said the deficits reflects the lag in the state economy and limitations of space for students. “But now,” she said, “our school is healthy. It’s in the black.”
Despite the report’s findings of financial troubles, Michael Soneff, campaign manager for Rodriguez, said the audit is being blown out of proportion.
“It is a shame that a helpful, routine report and an excellent school in good financial shape are being manipulated by those trying to influence the election,” Soneff said in a statement. “Dr. Rodriguez, who largely left the system two years before this review began, serving since as one of several PUC board members governing PUC schools, could not be more proud that Lakeview has consistently been in the top 10 percent of achieving LAUSD middle schools and that Lakeview teachers, parent and students report they are highly satisfied.”
As of this morning, Kayser’s campaign website did not mention the audit.