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Citing Debts, L.A. Board Revokes School's Charter

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The Los Angeles Unified School District board agreed last week to pull the plug on a charter school that had lost much of its enrollment and gone heavily into debt.

The 5-to-2 vote came after auditors found that mismanagement had plunged Edutrain, a special school for dropouts, nearly $1 million into debt and district officials determined the school was not meeting its academic goals.

"When you violate our trust, the consequences are not one more chance," Mark Slavkin, the board's president, said. The board rebuffed the school's pleas for an additional three months to turn itself around.

Winston C. Doby, the chairman of Edutrain's board of governors, last week called the board's decision "totally unfair" and vowed to fight it in court.

"There are some board members who are basically against charters," said Mr. Doby, who also is a vice chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles.

"This gives them an opportunity to put a nail in the coffin of the charter movement," he said.

Superintendent Sidney A. Thompson last week denied any political motivation behind the decision.

"We believe in the charter-school movement, and we desperately want it to succeed," Mr. Thompson said.

The only chance for Edutrain's success, Mr. Thompson said, is for it to close temporarily so that it can focus on reorganization without having to worry about students' needs.

The district has agreed not to give the charter--one of 10 allowed it under state law--to another school until after mid-April so Edutrain can reorganize and reapply.

The Los Angeles district's decision marked the first time that a school board has revoked a school charter. It also illustrated some of the financial pitfalls associated with the idea of enabling public schools to operate largely free of district oversight and control.

The decision illustrated that "the charter idea is very much about accountability," Ted Kolderie, who has followed the charter-schools movement as a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis, said last week.

Paying for Perks

Educators and business leaders had organized the Edutrain school so that dropouts could return to school and take part-time classes where they would receive individualized instruction.

The school was chartered in May 1993 and, in its first year, enrolled more than 500 students and graduated nearly 70 of them.

But in May, a state education department official visited the school and found it was receiving state funds for more students than it served. District officials said they then looked into the school and found its record-keeping to be "woefully inadequate," Richard K. Mason, a lawyer for the L.A.U.S.D., said last week.

An independent audit found the school was nearly $1 million in debt and owed the district at least $240,000 for students it had wrongly anticipated serving this fall, when only about 100 students enrolled.

Edutrain's board of governors has refused to release or publicly discuss a separate management review they commissioned.

But the Los Angeles Times reported, and school district officials last week confirmed, that the review found the school's money had been spent to lease its principal an expensive sports car, to help pay the principal's rent and hire a bodyguard, and to pay for a $7,000 staff retreat in Carmel. Teachers, meanwhile, had complained they lacked basic textbooks and supplies.

Mr. Doby maintained the district board acted on such findings without giving the school a chance to defend itself. The school's board has removed the former principal and has been taking steps to remedy the other problems, he said.

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