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Published in Print: June 23, 2004, as Calif., 2 Counties Team Up In Charter School Probe

Calif., 2 Counties Team Up In Charter School Probe

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The California Department of Education and two county education offices have joined forces to investigate a major charter school organization. They say the group may have violated a number of state charter school laws.

State officials announced this month that the county offices of education for Orange and San Bernardino counties would help with the investigation of the California Charter Academy. The investigation, which began in March at the request of the state Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, is one of the most serious actions taken against a charter school operator in the state.

Two school districts in those counties authorized four charters for the CCA, which is based in Victorville, Calif., and operates some 60 schools, serving about 8,100 students.

State officials allege that the CCA may have violated conflict-of-interest laws by allowing the chief executive officer of the academy to also head the for-profit corporation it contracts with to provide administrative services to its schools. Another charge centers on whether the academy illegally converted a private school to a charter school. Other issues include questions about staff salaries, expenditures, and school attendance figures, said Mark Kushner, the head of the nine-member state advisory commission.

The academy denies the allegations, and it is suing the state for $6 million in funds that the state has withheld this year. That case is expected to be decided in Los Angeles Superior Court in July, said Lisa Woolery, a spokeswoman for the academy. The CCA receives about $30 million annually in state money to manage its charter schools.

Information Sought

Jack O’Connell

Jack O’Connell, the state schools superintendent, pledged to work with the two counties on the investigation. No time frame has been set for completion of the work, said his spokeswoman, Hilary McLean.

The Orange Unified School District has given the academy an Aug. 15 deadline to remedy a list of complaints before the district may take back the charter it awarded. County officials declined to comment.

In an April 16 letter to C. Steven Cox, the chief executive officer of the California Charter Academy, Superintendent Robert L. French of the 32,000-student Orange Unified schools, said that the CCA had failed to provide information on Mr. Cox’s alleged dual roles as the head of the charter group and the company it hired to manage its schools.

"CCA has refused to respond to a reasonable request for information that pertains directly to the conflict-of-interest issue," Mr. French wrote. "CCA’s refusal to do so constitutes a further violation of law, … and therefore provides an additional grounds on which to revoke the charter."

The letter ordered the CCA to release the records and repay by Aug. 15 any state funds that were gained under illegal contracts. The district also ordered the CCA to close the Sunset Learning Center in Vista, Calif., which the district said it had determined was illegally converted from a private school to a charter school.

Shifting Accountability

Mr. Cox of the CCA declined to be interviewed, but sent a written statement to Education Week.

"Although we have complied with the [California] Department of Education each of the numerous times they have previously asked for this information, we will continue to cooperate and provide them with the documentation they request of us," he wrote."We look forward to a speedy and final resolution to these issues and are confident that this investigation will, as our audits state, find that we are providing our students with educational services that fall within the ramifications of state law."

Mr. Kushner said the case proves that the charter school movement is "holding one of its own accountable."

"I see the situation as, ‘The system is working,’ " said Mr. Kushner, who is also the founder and CEO of Leadership Public Schools, a network of California charter high schools. "There are many good charters, and the ones who are having improprieties should be investigated thoroughly."

Gary L. Larson, the spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association, said the state’s investigation reflected a "fundamental shift" in its charter school accountability system.

"Before, the state would have passed new restrictions that affect everyone," he said. With this investigation, he added, the charter school community and the state are working together to ensure these allegations are dealt with fairly.

Vol. 23, Issue 41, Page 24

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