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Charter operators say district has turned up the heat

Craig Clough | February 9, 2016

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LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer


A number of charter school operators across LA Unified say the district and its school board are turning up the heat on them to an unbearable degree while using the Charter Schools Division and Office of Inspector General to make approval and renewals of charter schools increasingly difficult.

They claim there has been an increase in the number of investigations by the Inspector General’s office and more denials of charters by the board though increased scrutiny by the district’s Charter Schools Division.

The board has already denied more charter applications in the last six months than it had in the previous two years combined, and it is likely to issue at least three more denials at today’s board meeting. Three other applications were withdrawn last week by Magnolia Public Schools after the Charter Schools Division was set to recommend denial.

The board rarely goes against staff recommendations on charters and has only done so one time in the last year.

“It’s starting to feel like a witch hunt as opposed to effective oversight and accountability,” said Magnolia Public Schools CEO and Superintendent Caprice Young, who served as LAUSD board president from 2001-2003. “I definitely believe some of the board members confuse increased bureaucracy with effective oversight.”

Previous to Young taking over Magnolia a little over a year ago, LA Unified attempted to shut down two of its campuses over fiscal mismanagement. But then a state audit issued in May said the district acted too hastily in trying to shut the schools down.

Young said Magnolia has been the focus of a series of investigations by the Inspector General’s office and it is beginning to feel like a never-ending investigation. Just as she thought the investigations of Magnolia were over and relations with the district were returning to normal, she discovered Magnolia was the subject of a new investigation when the Inspector General’s office asked for financial records dating back to 2002, something it had already fully investigated in the past.

“The Inspector General should not be allowed to investigate charters indefinitely,” Young said. “These investigations put an unnecessary cloud over charters, which I believe is intentional. The investigations are taking place in search of problems instead of in response to evidence of problems.”

Young said the investigation was launched in August days after a Broad Foundation plan to finance a major expansion of charter schools in the district was leaked.

A nonprofit to execute the plan, Great Public Schools Now (GPS Now), was formed later and has since said the plan is being retooled to finance charters, magnets and other district schools. Still, the plan has been denounced by the school board in a December resolution because of the perceived threat it sees to the district’s enrollment and finances. Several board members have delivered scathing public comments attacking the plan, with board President Steve Zimmer saying the backers of the plan want to “bring down” the district.

In an open letter to LAUSD that was sent to LA School Report by the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), 23 charter operators said they see a connection between the opposition to the plan and the increased scrutiny of charter schools.

“We are concerned that the current political and financial climate is impacting the district’s ability or willingness to review new charter petitions objectively,” the letter states. “We fear that as long as charters are unfairly singled out as the main cause of the district’s financial troubles, the district could choose to respond by preventing new charters from opening.”

When asked by LA School Report if his office is using “a finer microscope” when looking at charter schools or requesting more investigations of charters by the Inspector General’s office, Jose Cole-Gutierrez, director of LA Unified’s Charter School Division, said: “We have remained faithful to the board’s policy and faithful to the law, and our department has not been asked nor is it our role to say, ‘Cut off the spigot. Increase the spigot.’ No. We judge them on the merits as they come in. Period.”

The Inspector General’s office looks at improper and illegal activities taking place within the district and tries to detect fraud, waste or abuse. The office — which reports directly to the board — can be requested by any board member to open an investigation and has the power to issue subpoenas.

Much of the Inspector General office’s work is done in secret without public discussion, and confirming the claims by charter operators that the office has increased investigations is difficult. While any financial audits of charters are publicly released and published on the district’s website, investigations are not generally publicly released, and the office will not confirm or discuss any ongoing investigation.

There is some evidence that the office may have increased its number of investigations. The Inspector General, Ken Bramlett, went before the board’s Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee last month and requested an additional $570,000 for audits and investigations.

He said, “Charter-related work consumes the most amount of investigative resources due to the time-sensitive nature of the work and the monthly deadlines for board action on charter petitions.” He added, “What really worries me is the more charter schools that we authorize or the more charter schools that are planned, that’s that much more we are going to be asked to do with no additional resources.”

This year alone, there are five ongoing large-scale charter school investigations, Bramlett told the LA School Report in an email, although it is unknown if that is an increase from years past. When asked if there is any public record of who asked for an investigation, or if the number of investigations has increased, he said that information was confidential per the state education code.

The Charter Schools Division, which reports to the superintendent and issues recommendations to the board on the approval or denial of charter applications and renewals, can also request that the Inspector General open an investigation. Members of the public and other LAUSD divisions can also request an investigation through a hotline.

Cole-Gutierrez, who has been leading the division for eight years, insisted his office has not increased its scrutiny of charters or felt pressure to issue more recommendations for denials.

“Are we receiving indirect or direct pressure to deny charter schools? No,” Cole-Gutierrez said. “Our role is to be faithful to the process on the merits and give our best recommendation regardless of whatever else there may be in terms of perceptions, politics, etc., and I am proud of our team and our record to do so.”

When asked if his office had requested more investigations be launched by the Inspector General’s office, he said, “There are very few open investigations at the moment. I just think the facts don’t support that there are an increasing number.”

Young and other charter leaders said they see it differently and tell stories of being drowned in red tape. Several charter executives said they see a connection between the opposition to the GPS Now plan and increased scrutiny of charters that have been operating for years.

Parker Hudnut, a former LA Unified administrator who is now chief executive of ICEF Public Schools, a group of eight charters in LA Unified and two more in Inglewood Unified School District, put it this way:

“There’s absolutely a chilling effect going on, but I’m not smart enough to know what’s causing it. There has been a recent escalation, and the Broad plan may have a lot to do with that. But there’s what I call a dehumanization in the relationship between charters and LA Unified. It’s become a compliance culture; that’s the only thing we communicate about. There’s no space to talk about what we’re supposed to be talking about, and that’s helping kids.”

Cristina de Jesus, president and chief executive officer of Green Dot Public Schools California, which operates over a dozen schools in LAUSD, also said the scrutiny has increased. Green Dot has had eight charter renewals successfully go before the school board in the last year and had a new charter application approved in January. But de Jesus said it was no easy task.

“One of the frustrations I know that we have experienced and other folks have shared — and it could be the nature of the beast — but the target also seems to change,” she said. “What might be looked at one year might not be looked at the next year but something else is going to be, so it feels like you can’t get your bearings because the target is always changing.”

Young said the way charters are treated and analyzed is uneven compared to the scrutiny district schools receive.

“Back when I was on the board, we were approving charters with 50 pages of details and today the vast majority of those schools are thriving and are doing some cutting-edge work,” Young said. “Now, [charter applications] are 500 pages and most of that is boilerplate required by the school district, which makes the application process stifling. For the district to review a pilot school and approve it, they limit the submission to only 30 pages. With charters, the boilerplate alone is 10 times that.”

None of the seven school board members responded to a request by LA School Report to be interviewed for this story. Board member Ref Rodriguez, who took his seat on the board in July, sent a statement: “I have publicly advocated for more clear and transparent guidelines for how the superintendent makes a recommendation to the board regarding new petitions and renewals of charter schools.”

He added, “At the past six board meetings, I have had some outstanding questions regarding the grounds on which the district has based some of its recommendations. I acknowledge that quality oversight is complex and can be difficult; however, it is LAUSD’s duty, as the largest authorizer in the state, to ensure that all schools receive a fair, transparent, consistent and rigorous accountability process.”

Jed Wallace, the executive director of CCSA, said he also sees a pattern of anti-charter behavior by the board.

“Bottom line, this is a total witch hunt and charters are being harassed,” said Wallace, a former teacher in South-Central LA and administrator in San Diego before becoming chief operating officer of High Tech High, which grew from one school serving 400 students into eight schools serving more than 3,000 students during his tenure.

“This is not good authorizing and no other district in the state uses an [Inspector General]-like approach, an entity which was originally established to monitor LAUSD’s own bond efforts. LA’s charter sector is the best performing in the country and growing to meet the needs of students and their families. LAUSD has to do its part and improve its oversight to match that excellence.”

*Updated to reflect the letter was authored by 23 charter operators, not CCSA, and to include responses from Bramlett



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