County board overrules LAUSD to keep the embattled Magnolia charter schools open

A little-known county board overruled its own staff and the powerful Los Angeles Unified School District this week to allow three embattled charter schools to remain open.

The reprieve represents a full turnabout for Magnolia Public Schools, which faced the shutdown of its campuses after L.A. Unified moved against them in October. 

The L.A. Unified board voted 6 to 0 to shutter the schools at the end of the current school year. But the charter group had the option of appealing to the board of the L.A. County Office of Education, and that body reached a different decision Tuesday, by a 4-1 vote, after three hours of testimony and discussion.

As a result,  Magnolia Science Academy 1 in Reseda, Magnolia Science Academy 2 in Van Nuys and Magnolia Science Academy 3 in Carson will remain open.

Charters are independently run and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses, but they must be authorized by the local school system, the county or the state. Once L.A. Unified rejected Magnolia’s bid to keep the schools open, the county was the next agency with the authority to step in.

The county staff report echoed the school district’s concerns, concluding, among other things, that Magnolia failed to provide investigators, auditors and financial overseers with requested documents in a timely fashion after years of poor fiscal management.

The county review team also contended that the charter was top heavy in management, had a high student attrition rate and scheduled board meetings that were difficult for the public to participate in or see. 

José Cole-Gutíerrez, head of the charter school division for L.A. Unified, also appeared before the county to make the case. The county education office is headed by Debra Duardo, who until recently was a top L.A. Unified administrator. 

But a board majority was swayed by Magnolia’s reasonably strong academic record and evidence of new and improved management. Magnolia Chief Executive Caprice Young — a former L.A. Unified school board member — was allowed to present her case and answer questions from board members.

“The process felt a lot more fair than what I experienced at L.A. Unified,” Young said.

Members of the county education board are appointed by the elected county supervisors. L.A. Unified school board members are selected directly by voters.

From the start, the scrutiny of Magnolia Public Schools was never just about sound management or academic performance. 

Magnolia had come under widespread scrutiny after the Turkish government accused it and other U.S.-based charters with Turkish governing boards of helping foment a failed July coup in Turkey. The schools' leaders denied any involvement.

A more direct concern for L.A. Unified was Magnolia's practice — which the charter group says it has now ended — of importing Turkish nationals and their families for teaching and other staff positions.

But neither Turkish entanglement was cited as an official reason for closing the three schools when they came up before L.A. Unified for their routine five-year renewal hearing. Nor did those matters come up before the county Tuesday.

The county now is authorizing three Magnolia charter schools, which means it will provide oversight for them. Five Magnolia charters remain under the jurisdiction of L.A. Unified, and Magnolia also has schools in San Diego and Santa Ana.

At the October meeting in which L.A. Unified rejected Magnolia, it also turned down renewals for two campuses run by Celerity Schools. The county never acted on Celerity’s appeal. Celerity will move instead to a final appeal before the state Board of Education next year.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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