Bill would limit autonomy of LA Unified inspector general regarding charter schools

March 30, 2016

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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