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Tue, Jul

Charter School Controversy: Attack Ads and Financial Missteps Loom Over LAUSD Board Race

Scott Schmerelson, Dan Chang

VOICES

ELECTION 2024 - It was a campaign mailing so vile and anti-Semitic that even some charter-school promoters whom it was intended to benefit in February 2020 recoiled in disdain.  

Four years later, that attack mailer still echoes as its target, 40-year teacher, retired principal, and School Board Vice President Scott Schmerelson, who is Jewish, runs for reelection for a final 4-year term serving Board District 3 in the communities of the western San Fernando Valley. 

The vitriol behind the 2020 attack, which was paid for by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates, may be revived in efforts to promote the 2024 candidacy of Dan Chang. Chang is the latest charter-school candidate challenging Schmerelson, a political survivor who was outspent 6 to 1 in 2020 but prevailed 53 to 47 percent in a hard-fought runoff thanks to decades of trust and robust grassroots support from voters.  

Chang has worked for charter schools and pro-charter organizations for 13years. He is deeply enmeshed in the network of donors focused on privatizing L.A. public schools, including some of the same contributors who bankrolled the ugly mailers against Schmerelson in 2020. He has also used dubious channels to funnel COVID-relief money into a charter-school chain whose board he chaired until last year.  

Chang presents himself as a math teacher at Madison Middle School and dad who led the “turnaround” of Locke High School in Watts. In his bid to replace the experienced administrator Schmerelson, Chang vows to shake up LAUSD, the nation’s second largest district.  

But Chang’s story is shaky itself if not outright deceptive. Locke, now under management by the GreenDot charter schools where Chang used to work, was officially rated a “low performing“ charter school by state of California assessments issued in 2020 under the terms of AB 1505, the transparency law approved over the objections of charter-school advocates.  That is no turnaround. 

And while Chang is now in a public-school classroom, he has mostly been ensconced in charter-school conference rooms for the past decade. Until very recently, Chang was board chair of Valley Charter Schools, operators of an elementary and middle school in the San Fernando Valley, where Chang in August 2023 approved a plan to seek $942,000 in taxpayer money through a COVID recovery program called the Employee Retention Credit (ERC) administered by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Chang and the charter school he then directed used a third-party vendor, who may have taken as commission a sizable cut of the ERC money requested by the charter school.  

Fraud in ERC applications, particularly those sought by outside vendors who handled the requests, was so rampant that in 2023, the IRS shut down the program. 

In fact, ERC fraud has become so rampant, likely surpassing $100 billion, that California Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and other lawmakers wrote legislation to rein in it in, which has passed the U.S. House. 

Another red flag during Chang’s direction of the charter school emerges in records of forgivable loans under the COVID-era Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) of 2020. The program was intended for small business, but Valley Charter Schools was among the entities that exploited the gray area in which charter schools operate, claiming to be private when it helps them acquire funds or skirt non-discrimination or transparency standards and public when it helps them deflect scrutiny for greed, malfeasance, or mismanagement. Records show Valley Charter Schools were forgiven $802,000 in PPP loans. 

Charter schools have been among the most aggressive and gluttonous in grabbing PPP money, sometimes putting it in savings or using it for executive bonuses, as reporting from USA Today has documented.

In 2011, Chang was the executive director of the pro-charter school L.A. Fund for Public Education, making $129,000 and working alongside then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, who left three years later under a cloud of gross mismanagement. Chang went on to direct Great Public Schools L.A. (GPSLA), a more overtly pro-privatization organization that in 2015 was implicated in the scheme by billionaire Eli Broad to wrest control of at least half of LAUSD schools for wealthy charter operators. 

When Chang left GPSLA, he bragged in a letter to friends about the “crucial role” he had in the L.A. school board elections in spring 2015 for pro-charter school candidates. These included Ref Rodríguez, the treasurer of PUC Charter Schools, who eked out a narrow win over Bennett Kayser, whom Rodríguez mocked in campaign ads that ridiculed Kayser’s symptoms of Parkinson’s. Three years later, Rodriguez pled guilty for fraud in a scheme to launder charter-school money into that campaign and resigned the District 5 seat.

Disclosure records show that Chang is now leveraging his numerous charter-school connections, past and present, for campaign money. Not only has Chang received maximum contributions from Bill Bloomfield, the wealthy donor and former Republican now living in Utah who has bankrolled charter schools’ political candidates in L.A. for a decade. Bloomfield is also the largest donor to a pro-Chang independent expenditure campaign, having given the lion’s share of the $924,000 to that entity, thus avoiding contribution limits.  

Chang himself has donated to the campaigns of politicians involved in trying to siphon away LAUSD resources from classrooms to pro-charter organizations. These include former School Board Member Monica García and disgraced former Councilmember Jose Huizar, who will report to prison Aug. 30 after being sentenced to 13 years following his guilty plea on racketeering and corruption charges.  

In the primary, Chang collected just 29 percent of the vote against Board Vice President Schmerelson, who earned 45 percent, with three other challengers splitting the rest. As in 2020, that may set the stage for a nasty top-two runoff, with smears against the incumbent lobbed by independent spenders who want a crony for charter schools in the seat and a win at any cost. Chang’s background indicates he may be a willing foot soldier in that battle plan.  

(Hans Johnson is a longtime leader for LGBTQ+ human rights, environmental justice, and public education. His columns appear in national news outlets including USA Today and in top daily news outlets of more than 20 states. A resident of Eagle Rock, he is also president of East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD), the largest grassroots Democratic club in California, with more than 1,100 members.)