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.

(A transcript of testimony from this meeting has been added below this post.)

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 thought carefully through a process to try to discern the best way to serve their students. 85% 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 the open enrollment policy 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 to be said, and plenty of people will need to say it, as the volumes of documents are investigated.

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.

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.'

Qué será, será.
Whatever will be,
we will be—watching.

(With apologies to Doris Day, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans)


WATCH the board meeting:

RUSH TRANSCRIPT FROM BOARD MEETING (copy may not be in its final form)

2:00 Good afternoon, board members and superintendent King. My name is Jeanelle Ruly. I’m an Attorney with Young Minney & Corr I’m here today on behalf of el camino –uh, did I lose the mic? OK. Great – I’m here today on behalf of el camino real charter high school. We ask that the board vote against adopting the notice of violations.

The notice of violations is Premature. El Camino staff have been in frequent and productive communication with the Charter schools division financial team since the end of oct of last year. El cam and the charter schools div worked through an iterative process whereby the charter school responded timely and fully to all requests that were made. It Made policy changes and it made other changes that were requested by the charter schools division.

El Camino truly believed that It had done what the Charter Schools Division had asked and satisfied those concerns. Particularly because Aaron Earlywine [of the LAUSD Charter Schools Division] came to the charter school at the end of the last school year and said everything looked good. To suddenly escalate matters to a notice of violations feels like a bait and switch sucker punch.

The notice of violations is replete with mistakes. The CSD states as fact items which are disproven by the evidence that are actually included in the evidence that it put together. Statements that an individual had a meal at a particular restaurant out of town are shown inaccurate on the item description that was actually included.

If the board takes action to approve this notice of violations, it’s ignoring its own duty to exercise due diligence. Moving forward with this document that contains errors and creates damaging, unsubstantiated innuendo is reckless.

The notice epitomizes the Moving target of compliance that charter schools sometimes face.

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.” This dynamic is unproductive for both sides and ultimately harms students because so many resources are poured into this back and forth.

Lastly, the notice of violations Violates the law because it does not take into account increases in pupil academic achievement are supposed to be the most important factor when the district is looking to revoke a charter.

Approving this will expose the district to liability. We urge you to vote against this item.

Steve Zimmer: Our next speaker is Ms. Gail Turner-Graham, I, forgive me if did not get your name right. I got it right? One for one. Don’t expect that ratio to continue. Welcome.

5:50 Gail Turner-Graham  – Good afternoon board members and Superintendent King. I’m a proud teacher at El Camino and a member of UTLA. I stand here in support of my charter school. Since converting to a charter school, el camino has enhanced the high school experience for students, providing the community with a premier high school option. Our administration and board of directors have increased the number of, educators, teachers and counselors by 15%. That means more classes, more programs, more clubs, more extra-curricular activities and more opportunities for our students. To name a few examples, we now have two dedicated college counselors who work with students and families throughout the college planning process. We started an alternative educational program to assist students in credit recovery enabling them to grad with ECRCH diploma. We started an independent study program to accommodate students who are unable to participate in a traditional academic curriculum due to family, health or career considerations.

The result of these efforts? Since conversion our cohort grad rate has improved from 79.8% in 2011 to 93.1% in 2016. We are so happy to share our success with families throughout Los Angeles. Our 3,600 students come from our neighborhood and over 60 zip codes throughout LA. In 2016, we received over 1000 applications for the lottery. And that’s not all. Among public schools, El Camino offers one of the highest average teacher salaries in California while also being one of the lowest funded schools in the state. We have achieved this through hiring talented staff and the establishment of a lean operating system. Our administrators work hard to maximize the resources that go into the classroom. Since conversion, our spending on teachers, counselors and teacher support staff has increased more than 40%. We feel this every day. El Camino takes care of its teachers. We earn 7% above the LAUSD salary scale, and our admins created a trust to set aside money for our retiree benefits. The average teacher took home more than 90,000 in 2015-16. In 2016-17, Governor Brown announced average K-12 spending of $14.5 per student. We willnow continue to receive less than $10,000 per student and we will continue to do more with less. With The passage of prop 30, ECR is projected to spend more than 95% of all new money on teacher salaries and staff bens LAUSD is projected to spend less than half of its money on those same things.

ECC is a well managed, successful school. Please let us keep focusing on what we do best, providing our students with an excellent education. Please vote no on issuing a Notice of Violations.

9:25 Lori Chandler
Good afternoon board members and Michelle King, superintendent. My name is lori chandler and I am a teacher at El Camino Real and a UTLA member. I graduated from El Cam Real in 1980. I’ve been teaching there since Oct 1985. To say that I am loyal, committed and appreciative to teach at El Camino would be an understatement. I was a teacher at El cam 14 years ago and we talked about going charter. Back then the tieme wasn’t right. We lacked confidence in the administration and the majority of the faculty was not in favor of becoming a charter school.

Five years ago things were very different. The majority of the faculty was in full support og going charter and we fully supported our administration. Becoming a charter school was the best thing that ever happened to el cam real. We now have full autonomy to best serve the needs of our students. Being a charter school to me means that decisions are made at the school level by people who are at the school site every day, autonomy, dealing with situations, issues, concerns, then trying to problem solve with outcomes that best serve the needs of the school, teachers, students and community.

 If you ask me, we’ve done a pretty darned good job. The fact that we’ve done so well, it seems to me, is the reason why you’d like to revoke our charter and bring us back to the district. Maybe it’s because we ‘ve won numerous city titles in athletics, 97 to be exact. Or because we’ve graduated 1000 seniors last year. Or because our Robust AP course offerings, or numerous film festival awards. Or everything else that el cam has done in the last five years. It is my understanding that charter schools lose their charters because they’re not successful academically or financially. How can you say we’re not successful academically or financially? Our school is in the black. Our teachers are paid well. We have several million in the bank for retiree benefits, facility improvements and savings, and we are thriving. Perhaps that’s the problem. We are thriving too much. For me it’s not just professional, it is personal. I have devoted 33 and a half years of my life to that school. So I ask you to allow us to continue to be successful. I’m asking you to vote no--N-O—on issuing the notice of violations to my school, El Camino Real. I thank you for your time.

12:00 David Tokofsky – Thank you, board members and superintendent. 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. What did they know? When did they know it? and who did they tell?

You’ve had instances like this before in other charter schools in which the boards of those charters took action before this board took action.

The item before you, as legal counsel has just said may be premature but it is very detailed. And in fact, if it were to be delayed it would probably be even more detailed. And even more detailed. But we already know about the various specifics from the flights, to the meals, and those have more details that I’m sure the board of El Camino will look into as well as you and your staff. Obviously responses, and changes—there is a due process in which the charter gets to the 21st to respond to these items. And certainly they have probably detailed responses: That there was conference in Vegas they were attending. Or there was something in San Antonio that was important to school reform and charters.

Everything does look good at this school. I’ve competed against this school as a decathlon coach. But I never thought of El Camino to compare to Canoga Park. In fact, that’s one of the worst segregated lines in LA Unified’s history. But students come from Ventura County to get into El Camino. Students come from other countries to get into El Camino. You can’t compare Washington Prep and El Camino.

They have a FC MAT report done. All board members should see the FC MAT report and take a look at it.

But What did your staff know? When did they know it? And who did they tell?

This board and superintendent, since October, 2015, has voted on a number of items related to ECC. The info that’s in this board book was not presented in a public way during your renewal, the expansion of that charter, or land discussions and deals. Those items were not presented to you. Somebody knew. Somebody didn’t tell, perhaps, the superintendet and the board, and the Superintendent put her signature to documents and the board voted on documents while this information was available, at least to October ‘15. But I invite you to look before October 15 and take a look at items in October ’14 and ‘13 that previous boards have looked at and voted on while these issues were in play.

15:17 Hi. Good afternoon. My name’s Sue Freitag. I am a proud graduate of El Camino Real High School. I’m also a teacher there, I’ve been there for 17 years. I’m also our visual and performing arts department chair. I’m a national board certified teacher, and I’m a UTLA member.

I wouldn’t normally take time away from my students in the second week of school, but I thought coming down here today was important to urge you to vote against this agenda item, Issuance of Notice of Violations of ECRCHS.

I’ve seen ECR through different lenses and different stages. We knew six years ago that converting to a charter was going to be a growing experience. We were taking a risk to leave the big district and go out on our own. However, we were hopeful that being a charter would allow us to improve, build new, innovative programs and support the specific needs and students and families in our community. I believe we have surpassed our expectations. As a charter, we have flourished. The theater program alone has benefited greatly: Facility upgrades, and the new technology necessary for our students to be competitive in college and theater careers after high school.

ECR has been a part of my family for the past 32 years. From my perspective it has always been a great school with a pristine reputation. Excellence in academics, athletics and of course the arts is what ECR stands for. It hurts me personally to see our reputation under scrutiny.

If the thousands of pages of violations sent to ECRCHS 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. If we were making so many mistakes, why did it take over four years for the CSD to point them out, and in pointing them out threaten revocation of our charter? It seems to me it might be more productive and helpful to a new charter and the students that we serve if we could have received guidance and assistance from CSD along the way.

Finally I’m here today on behalf of my students. They deserve a safe environment free of political interference. And again I urge you to vote no on this issuance of violation for ECR.

David Chay good afternoon. My name is David Che and I am a math teacher at El Camino Charter School as well as a member of UTLA. I was an employee at LAUSD Van Nuys High School. Volley ball coach and wanting to provide

Fluke Fluker
What did you know? When did you know it? And who did you tell it to? That’s a very good question. I ask that of the CSD.

Dean Sodek – Humanitas Global Studies Academy

85% of the faculty voted to go charter.

administration – fully committed to our curricular model, devoted resources, common planning time. Dedicating an exclusive counselor for his program.

Our staff learned of the notice in the first week of school. And many teachers have concerns about the process up to this point. It is our understanding that last year alone our school paid the district $300,000 in oversight fees for our charter, and over the past five years we have paid the district some $1.2 million in charter fees. Many teachers are perplexed as to why and how it is that we haven’t received any actual guidance from the charter office for so long. Yet here In the first week of our sixth year we have the financial kitchen sink being lobbed at us…only at the start of this sixth year do we receive a notice of violation listing items that extend many years back. Only in the sixth year, the year all teachers have exhausted their charter leave, losing potential return rights and access to medical benefits, only in this sixth year, the year the fight was funded against charter schools.

$1.2 million in oversight fees should allow for some assistance

To appeal to this board just to help the charter office do this the right way. In an effort to increase financial transparency, something that we all want.

Melanie Horton, Director of Marketing

We need feedback and guidance. We pay oversight fees and we expect their support. In the name of everything that is best for our school and for our students, our relationship with the CSD should be one of Mentorship.…Encourage the CSD to work together with our school and model a proactive charter/authorizer relationship.