Credit: Brenda Iasevoli for EdSource
Sixth-grade students in a math class at Oscar Romero Charter School in Los Angeles.

In the late 1990s, Los Angeles Unified became the first and only school district in California to have an Office of the Inspector General, with responsibilities to oversee the vast finances and operations of the state’s largest school district.

Now, a bill gathering support in the Assembly, AB 2806, would place new limits on the office’s autonomy, making it answerable to the seven-member school board with restrictions on how much time and money the office could spend on its investigations of charter schools.

As routine as the bill might sound, it represents another salvo in the ongoing charter wars within L.A. Unified, where the student population is falling by nearly 3 percent a year and large numbers of district students are enrolling in charters. The friction between charters and the district, which already has more independent charter schools than any other school district in the country, has grown so acute that Superintendent Michelle King has proposed a summit, of sorts, for the competing interests to find common ground.

“We’ve got to figure out this relationship,” said Steve Zimmer, the school district’s board president. “Some things improve the relationship with charters. Some things exacerbate the relationship with charters. Bill 2806 exacerbates it.”

The leading proponent of the bill is the California Charter Schools Association, which argues that an independent inspector general, who investigates in secret, should be bound by the same laws that govern the district, which is the only body with legal authority to approve charter school applications and renewals. As a result, said Jed Wallace, the association’s president and chief executive, the inspector general can ignore laws that would otherwise apply in any deliberative action, such as public records requests and the Brown Act, a 1953 state law that guarantees public participation in meetings of local legislative bodies.

“I continue to support the Office of the Inspector General but we are seeing a dramatic increase in money that L.A. Unified is spending on investigations of charters, and it’s not showing up in what they’re presenting to the public,” said Caprice Young, Magnolia Public Schools chief executive and former member of the L.A. Unified board.

“It’s not a wise approach to authorizing charters,” Wallace said. “But it’s part of the trend in that district. Among the thousand school districts in California, while all of them are not authorizers, none of them involves an entity with specific powers of secrecy to do their investigations. L.A. Unified is reaching for another level to challenge charter schools and discourage further growth.”

Not so, said Zimmer, who argued that a district of L.A. Unified’s size, which includes more than 600,000 students, 1,200 schools and an annual budget of more than $12 billion, needs independent audits and investigations that might be “longer in duration than we like.”

“But the last remedy” for those uncomfortable with the inspector general’s work, he added, “should be to attack its independence.”

The bill was introduced last month by co-sponsors Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, and Matt Dababneh, D-Encino. Neither responded to multiple requests for comment.

Their interest in a new law appears to arise out of a 2014 investigation of Magnolia Public Schools, which operates eight charters in L.A. Unified as well as one each in Costa Mesa, San Diego and San Jose. The inspector general’s finding led to a staff recommendation to close three Magnolia schools in L.A. Unified over financial questions. Magnolia went to court to appeal and a judge’s ruling favored Magnolia, keeping the schools open.

In its own examination of the situation, the California State Auditor’s Office concluded that Magnolia’s financial practices were, in fact, appropriate and cited Los Angeles Unified for acting “prematurely” to rescind the charters.

The state auditor recommended 12 operational changes for Magnolia, which has until May to comply, and two procedural changes for L.A. Unified that would give charters more flexibility in responding to issues raised by the inspector general. Magnolia has complied with seven of the recommendations so far, according to the state auditor. The district has not complied with either of its two.

In an apparent response to issues raised by the state auditor, the bill’s authors crafted language that would remove some of the inspector general’s autonomy regarding investigations of charter schools and operators. It would require that any investigation of charter schools be approved by the board and that findings be made public, prior to any action.

It further says, “If an audit or investigation will exceed 90 days, the inspector general shall justify the need for the extended time which must be approved by the governing board of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The inspector general shall not exceed the approved timeline without subsequent approval from the governing board of the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

Caprice Young, Magnolia’s chief executive and superintendent, was a member of the L.A. Unified board when the Office of the Inspector General was created. The rationale at the time, she said, was to create subpoena power for investigations related to construction bonds.

“I continue to support the Office of the Inspector General,” Young said, adding, “but we are seeing a dramatic increase in money that L.A. Unified is spending on investigations of charters, and it’s not showing up in what they’re presenting to the public.”

A discussion of the bill is scheduled for the Assembly education committee on April 6.

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  1. TurkishAmerican 3 years ago3 years ago

    Let me understand this, the California Charter Schools Association wants to limit the ability of ongoing investigations that Office of Inspector General is conducting that protect the taxpayer money from fraud. However, CCSA or its members who pay dues aka publicly funded charter schools that are privately run don't believe they must be transparent? What kind of nonsense is CCSA is trying to pull? Until CCSA can openly condemn the financial … Read More

    Let me understand this, the California Charter Schools Association wants to limit the ability of ongoing investigations that Office of Inspector General is conducting that protect the taxpayer money from fraud. However, CCSA or its members who pay dues aka publicly funded charter schools that are privately run don’t believe they must be transparent?

    What kind of nonsense is CCSA is trying to pull? Until CCSA can openly condemn the financial mismanagement of its members instead of protecting them and they themselves are transparent with their reckless marketing, public relations and advertising,this proposed bill is biased and one sided.

    It’s obvious CCSA is trying to put shackles on an investigative arm to protect a particular group of schools that has a CEO that is a former CEO of CCSA. Until CCSA can allow taxpayers to actually vet their so called “91,000 waiting list of desperately waiting children dying to get into California charter schools, or personally allow a third party to vet the false claims of 100% graduation rate and other false advertising tactics, then this bill should be quashed. Neither the State Assembly nor the business people over at CCSA have any right or legal authority to determine the scope or time frame of the OIG on their precious little members who have no problem getting millions in grants, loans and bond under false pretenses.

    The overseeing authority which is the LAUSD board should determine who, how long and for what purpose the OIG needs to dig deeper into their charter schools. Lastly, if charter schools have nothing to hide, they should be openly and willingly embracing transparency instead of resistance or creating straw man arguments that there must be something wrong with the law rather than the issues that are largely internal and fiscal as well as academic in nature.

    Some investigations require longer time frames and are subject to obtaining witnesses and documentation. These charter schools have overburdened the systems by creating “shell” organizations or a layer of nonprofits that are essentially double dipping into educational funds and many times have two sets off books from their original application name to the newer name created. The fraudulent charter schools are making this difficult for the OIG to gather all the facts. Then there is the issue of schools wiring money oversees and hiring foreign nationals that have no teaching experience; there is a ream of paper work that needs to be investigated.

    CSSA should clean up your itw backyard before professing to know what is right for taxpayers.

  2. Jack Covey 3 years ago3 years ago

    Another thing I wanted to comment on was the California Charter School Associations's position on and government oversight of privately-managed charter schools – that is, their ACTUAL position in practice. A few years ago, when the Ivy charter schools in California’s San Fernando Valley were embroiled in a major scandal, with the couple that founded and ran them were caught in the most egregious financial and other corruption, and were found guilty of said corruption, how … Read More

    Another thing I wanted to comment on was the California Charter School Associations’s position on and government oversight of privately-managed charter schools – that is, their ACTUAL position in practice.

    A few years ago, when the Ivy charter schools in California’s San Fernando Valley were embroiled in a major scandal, with the couple that founded and ran them were caught in the most egregious financial and other corruption, and were found guilty of said corruption, how did CCSA reply?

    Here’s that story.

    Here’s prosecutors statement: “This message is going to resonate throughout the charter school community,’ said prosecutor Sandi Roth. ‘You can’t spend the charter school funds for anything you want. It has to be money spent on the kids and the schools.’ ”

    Sounds pretty reasonable, right?

    Well, not to charter folks.

    Here’s CCSA’s statement: “ ‘The prosecution seeks to undermine the cornerstone of what makes charter schools successful — their freedom from the rules binding traditional district schools,’ said attorney Anne A. Lee, in a brief on behalf of the California Charter Schools Assn.”

    CCSA and its CEO, Jed Wallace, say nothing denouncing the obscene loss of millions of dollars of California taxpayer money due to the lack of oversight, and the larceny that this lack of oversight enables. They don’t even take the opportunity to distance themselves from this, and say something like, “These are the kind of charters that give charters a bad name. We want nothing to do with them. Shame. Shame.”

    Nope. None of that.

    Instead, they claim that it’s the prosecutors who are the ones doing bad, or who are in the wrong. They’re interfering with charter schools’ operators’ effective license to steal tax money, and their ability to spend it on themselves, instead of having that money get to the classroom, where it can do some good.

    They couch it in terms of “undermin(ing) the cornerstone of what makes charter schools successful — their freedom from the rules binding traditional district schools.”

    So if there’s a principal or administrator in a traditional district school that’s stealing, the prosecutors should go to town on those crooks.

    However, if there’s the same kind of larceny and corruption in a charter school, then — according to CCSA — those prosecutors should butt out of something that’s none of their business.

    Wallace and CCSA’s logic goes something like this: The free market will determine the fate of those crooks and their schools. Their corrupt practices will lead to them underperforming, and that will lead to parents voting with their feet, and that will eventually cause the school to close — the invisible hand of capitalism will make everything right.

    Never mind that, in the interim, tens of millions of California taxpayers’ money — money intended for the classroom to help children — WILL irreversibly and forever lost, and not actually reach the classroom, and the crooks will forever go unpunished.

    Here’s what Diane Ravitch wrote about the Ivy charter school scandal, and the problems with lack of oversight of charter schools in general wrote:

    “The continuing scandals at charter schools is indicative of the near-complete absence of supervision of the state’s more than 1,000 charter schools.

    “The state–which has more charters than any other state–and the Los Angeles school district, which has the largest number of charters of any district, should develop a strategy to establish accountability and transparency for these unregulated schools. The reason for the huge number of charters? Former Governor Schwarzenegger appointed a state board dominated by charter advocates, even though less than 5% of the public students in the state attended charters.

    “Plus, big money in California–starting with Eli Broad–invests heavily in charters.

    “Without oversight of expenditures, a charter is a license to get public money and do with it whatever you want. You won’t get caught unless someone squeals, because no one at the State Education Department or the local school district is paying attention. No one is watching.

    “And here is an interesting sidenote: the teachers at the charter school voted in February to form a union and affiliate with the UTLA.”

    ———————–

  3. Steve M 3 years ago3 years ago

    The LAUSD Board is likely to shift back to a charter-friendly make up, as Monica Ratliff has given notice that she will be leaving, Monica Garcia has indicated that she will seek reelection (she has a lock on her board district), and Zimmer will face his greatest reelection opponent in the form of a TFA-cum-lawyer, charter-backed boy wonder.

    And now we know why Eli Broad was fine with withdrawing his Great Schools Now Initiative…

  4. Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene 3 years ago3 years ago

    The lengths these revenue hungry charter school executives will go to avoid any and all oversight is astonishing. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) are the only organs of public oversight that come close to the de minimis scrutiny these privately managed schools should be subject to. As a legal scholar whose research into the various misrepresentation and malfeasance perpetrated by the charter sector, I depend … Read More

    The lengths these revenue hungry charter school executives will go to avoid any and all oversight is astonishing. The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and the Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) are the only organs of public oversight that come close to the de minimis scrutiny these privately managed schools should be subject to. As a legal scholar whose research into the various misrepresentation and malfeasance perpetrated by the charter sector, I depend on access to information gathered by the OIG/OIM. I would find impossible to discover facts that would otherwise remain undisclosed by the secretive charter industry without these bodies. I am not alone in this regard. The United States Census Bureau is on record for not being able to report information on charter schools because of their private nature (US Census Bureau. (2011). “Public Education Finances: 2009 (GO9-ASPEF)”. Washington, DC: US Government Printing O ce. Print. vi).

    It is in the public interest that charter schools be subject to a modicum of oversight. One would think that it would be public policy that any organization that takes public money should be subject to public scrutiny. AB 2806 would severely hamper the OIG’s already minimal ability to investigate an industry that essentially runs with no other public oversight or control. The charter industry’s attempts to eliminate this one mechanism for holding them accountable is unconscionable, but not unexpected.

    The irony of well-heeled charter school executives like Caprice Young decrying the OIG should not go unnoticed. In defense of her beleaguered Magnolia charter chain, Young has written several Op-Eds. In them she discusses a 2015 audit of the schools claiming it was “financially solvent”, but omits that scores of previous audits that found the chain insolvent. For instance, the 2014 audit revealed them “operating on a $1.7 million deficit” and that there multiple instances of “missing, misused funds” (SPRC, 2014 ). This misrepresentation by omission alone impeaches Young’s credibility beyond any reasonable standard. Moreover, it demonstrates why public agencies like the OIG and OIG are so critical. AB 2806 is further evidence of the lucrative charter school industry’s revenue-first agenda, and their ongoing efforts to avoid any oversight is another example of how they harm both their own students, and the students in our public schools.

  5. Jack covery 3 years ago3 years ago

    If you've got nothing to hide, you hide nothing. Or... to be more specific ... If you've got nothing to hide, you don't limit investigators' ability to discover what you're hiding. That which we hide --- or seek to hide by whatever means, such as gutting LAUSD's OIG's power to investigate --- is that of which we are ashamed, and that we know will hurt us once it's discovered. Once again, the charter industry it out to gut … Read More

    If you’ve got nothing to hide, you hide nothing. Or… to be more specific …

    If you’ve got nothing to hide, you don’t limit investigators’ ability to discover what you’re hiding.

    That which we hide — or seek to hide by whatever means, such as gutting LAUSD’s OIG’s power to investigate — is that of which we are ashamed, and that we know will hurt us once it’s discovered.

    Once again, the charter industry it out to gut any oversight of its finances, operations, etc.

    If passed, this will allow charter operators to operate in secrecy — essential private schools with public money, but no or minimal public oversight, transparency, or accountability. In turn, this will lead to more corruption, financial scandals, waste of taxpayers’ money, illegal dumping of children who are more expensive or troublesome to educate, etc.

    By the time any of this is discovered, taxpayers’ money will be gone, baby, gone, and the damage to the pre-existing traditional public schools will be permanent and irreversible … Which is the the plan all along.

    Next time, California Charter Schools Association’s Jed Wallace says, “We welcome accountability. We’ve got nothing to hide,” remember this bill that they’re pushing.

  6. democracydrivenschools 3 years ago3 years ago

    Charter schools may have autonomy under California’s charter law, but they are still subject to accountability. The California Charter Schools Association’s effort to legislatively strip financial oversight of CA charter schools doesn’t pass the smell test. Why is the CCSA pushing this bill? What are charter schools trying to hide?

  7. navigio 3 years ago3 years ago

    "The friction between charters and the district, which already has more independent charter schools than any other school district in the country, has grown so acute that Superintendent Michelle King has proposed a summit, of sorts, for the competing interests to find common ground." I said it 6 years ago and I'll say it again now. Charters are not inherently worse. Traditional schools are not inherently worse. But when they exist in parallel, it is only … Read More

    The friction between charters and the district, which already has more independent charter schools than any other school district in the country, has grown so acute that Superintendent Michelle King has proposed a summit, of sorts, for the competing interests to find common ground.

    I said it 6 years ago and I’ll say it again now. Charters are not inherently worse. Traditional schools are not inherently worse. But when they exist in parallel, it is only to the detriment of students. This district – and ideally the entire state – needs to make a decision about charters. Either make them illegal or convert entirely to ‘charter,’ which today essentially means disbanding the union (yes I know some charters are unionized).

    For a decade now this conflict has created not only friction, but put pressure on the finance, administration and curriculum of public schools while also increasing segregation in both schools and society. We are now at a point where the charter ‘industry’ is literally able to challenge the largest school district in the state for the responsibility to educate our children. If you think that takeover is going to go smoothly and happily, well, you need to go back to school.

    By the time this fight is over, it will have consumed the educational lives of an entire generation of children and its implications are going to reach much further than just their ‘education.’

  8. denocracydrivenschools 3 years ago3 years ago

    The position of Inspector General should be expanded in California, not stripped. Charter schools operate with an autonomy, but are not free from accountability. The California Charter School Association’s attempt to weaken charter school accountability doesn’t pass the smell test. What are charter schools trying to hide?