L.A. Unified decides fate of six charter schools; El Camino leader resigns

The ongoing tug of war between pro-charter school and anti-charter forces was focused Tuesday on the Los Angeles Board of Education, which faced controversial decisions on the future of six campuses.

By the end of a sometimes contentious meeting, the school board allowed one high-profile charter to survive in exchange for the departure of its leader. The board also voted to reject petitions for five schools run by two other organizations.

The outcome was bittersweet for many at El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills.

The district agreed to stay a revocation process that would have returned El Camino to the control of the L.A. Unified School District. But founding executive director, David Fehte, consented to leave within the next week. Several governing board members also are expected to depart over the next several months. 

The L.A. school board’s vote was 6 to 0 against a five-year renewal for three schools operated by locally based Magnolia Educational and Research Foundation. Board member George McKenna abstained.

Magnolia came 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 importing of Turkish nationals and their families for teaching and other staff positions. That past practice is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the district’s inspector general. 

Magnolia operates 10 campuses, including eight in L.A. Unified; the ones up for renewal were Magnolia Science Academy 1 in Reseda, Magnolia Science Academy 2 in Van Nuys and Magnolia Science Academy 3 in Carson. 

The school board denied the other two charter renewals, for Celerity Dyad in South Los Angeles and Celerity Troika in Eagle Rock, in a 6-0 vote. Ref Rodriguez, who represents the area where the schools are located, abstained.    

The actions on these schools directly affected more than 13,000 students but also took on greater significance as the L.A. Unified School District struggles both to oversee and compete with charters.

L.A. Unified has more of these independently operated schools than any other district, and, as they compete for students, charter growth is one major factor affecting the district’s financial stability.

Charter advocates on Tuesday asserted that L.A. Unified is growing increasingly hostile to new and existing charters, and that district evaluators are seeking to close charters over relatively minor matters that have no bearing on academic performance. 

They insisted that L.A. Unified is acting unfairly and possibly in violation of state regulations.  An attorney for Magnolia went further, calling the focus on the Turkish workers, “discrimination based on nationality and religious beliefs.”

“These people have never done anything but provide a world-class education to inner-city kids in Los Angeles,” attorney Jerry Simmons said.

District officials maintained that all six of the schools had problems that justified taking action despite their academic performance, which ranged from acceptable to much better. 

The approval process for charters has taken on a ritual-like quality in the nation’s second-largest school system. 

Whenever a charter has an item affecting its future before the board, its supporters, officials and attorneys turn out en masse.

Tuesday was no different, as Magnolia and Celerity brought out hundreds of supporters. 

Like Magnolia, Celerity Educational Group has been dealing with an inspector-general’s investigation, which examined possible conflicts of interest.

The unfinished investigations are confidential, so the official presentations against Celerity and Magnolia involved other matters, including alleged shortcomings in the wording of renewal petitions and allegations that the organizations failed to provide investigators with all requested documents in a timely fashion.

L.A. board members were ultimately swayed by the argument that Celerity was operating too secretively and that an independent fiscal team had issues with Magnolia’s responsiveness to problems. Celerity and Magnolia could appeal to the county and the state to remain open.

El Camino’s charter had been renewed last year, but it faced possible revocation over such issues as Fehte’s use of school credit cards for wine, costly dining tabs, upgraded air travel and expensive hotel rooms.

He called the charges inadvertent and reimbursed the school for more than $6,000 when they were called to his attention.

El Camino took a variety of measures to placate L.A. Unified, including canceling staff credit cards. Then, last week, chief business officer Marshall Mayotte agreed to leave. 

But that apparently wasn’t enough for the school district, and Fehte, whom supporters considered instrumental to the school’s success, became the next domino to fall. 

“I will do what it takes to preserve this charter which we all worked so hard to establish,” Fehte said in a statement.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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