Tue, May

Qué Syrah, Syrah: Whatever will Happen to El Camino Charter High School?


EDUCATION POLITICS-The charter school under fire for accusations that it used public money for luxury items like first class airfare, a bottle of syrah (not será) and late night charcuterie (and more…much more) defended itself by blaming the school district for failing to provide necessary oversight. 

In Risky Business, did Tom Cruise blame his parents for leaving him home when his entrepreneurial experiment turned into the party of his life? 

El Camino Charter Executive Director David Fehte’s party was the premier topic at LAUSD’s August 23rd board meeting. As has been widely reported and blogged, the board adopted a Notice of Violations for the high achieving, highly segregated -- some might say that’s redundant -- charter school. 

The charter school’s attorney said the problem isn’t unique to El Camino. “Like Charlie Brown kicking a football, charter schools are set up to make compliance mistakes, and then they’re heavily penalized when they actually do,” she complained. 

If she means that, in the five years between renewal hearings, unregulated charter schools can be given enough rope to hang themselves, she may be right. But then she threatened legal action against the rope maker. 

“…Approving this will expose the district to liability,” she said bluntly. 

The testimony of the teachers, though, was emotional. Some had been teaching at El Camino for decades and they had gone through a process to try and discern the best way to serve their students. Eighty-five percent had voted to become independent from the district bureaucracy and convert to a charter. 

One teacher said, “It hurts me personally to see our reputation under scrutiny.” 

The rest of LAUSD and public school districts across the country might have a thing or two to say about the fairness of being scrutinized. 

The teachers touted the accomplishments of the school since they were granted autonomy: Having the highest paid teachers, adding staff to the tune of two dedicated college counselors, another counselor just for the Humanitas program, facilities upgrades, new technology and an administration that is 100% behind their collaborative model. None of them mentioned an enrollment process that allows charters to recruit the most motivated families. 

Every person who testified on behalf of the charter school pointed the finger at LAUSD’s Charter Schools Division (CSD). 

Melanie Horton, the charter school’s director of marketing, said, “We need feedback and guidance. We pay oversight fees and we expect their support.” 

Another teacher, Susan Freitag, the visual and performing arts department chair, said that since they converted to charter, the school has benefited from facility upgrades and new technology. She asked, “If the thousands of pages of violations sent to [El Camino Charter] hold any validity, I question the Charter School Division as to why these issues were not brought to our school’s attention prior to last year. We have the same administration. We’ve had the same financial team. We’ve had the same board members.” 

Dean Sodek, head of the Humanitas Global Studies Academy at El Camino Charter said financial transparency is something we all want. 

One wonders if these teachers pressed their charter school board for the same thing. For all the recent talk that “all schools are our schools in the LAUSD family,” its charter schools are independently governed by their own boards of directors. Nonprofits are subject to oversight even if they’re not schools because they’re handling public money.

The same administration. The same financial team. The same board members. 

Former LAUSD school board member David Tokofsky quoted a page from history when he testified at the board meeting. 

“I’m reminded, as a social studies teacher, of the phrase ‘What did you know? When did you know it and who did you tell?’ That refers not to you as a board or to the superintendent, but it may refer to your staff and it may refer to the board at this charter school.” 

There will be plenty said, and plenty of people will need to say it, as the volumes of documents are investigated. Which recalls another quote from history: “This is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.” 

How much authority does the LAUSD board have over an independent charter school? Will charters start lobbying for more oversight? LOL. What will the California Charter Schools Association say about that? Why did so many public schools in former school board member Tamar Galatzan’s district convert to charter in the first place? 

The discussion and the ramifications will reach far beyond El Camino Charter and the LAUSD.

Qué será, será.

Whatever will be, we'll be -- watching. (With apologies to Doris Day, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans)


(Karen Wolfe is a public school parent, the Executive Director of PS Connect and an occasional contributor to CityWatch.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


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