L.A. County to investigate public school system's enrollment of Catholic school students

Los Angeles County education officials have launched an investigation into fiscal and legal questions surrounding a small public school district that has been enrolling Catholic school students.

The inquiry centers on the Lennox Virtual Academy, an online school operated by the Lennox School District, which has about 5,000 students and is located near Los Angeles International Airport. This month, The Times reported that the district had entered into unorthodox partnerships with at least four Catholic schools, offering them money and free laptops in exchange for enrolling their students in the district’s virtual academy.

The arrangement also was a boon to Lennox, a school district that had been losing students — and the state funding that follows them — for more than a decade.

But legal experts and some parochial school parents raised doubts about the district’s actions. They questioned whether the arrangements complied with California’s particularly strict interpretation of the separation of church and state. Also at issue was whether the public school district could properly claim state money for students who were attending Catholic schools full time, and whose parents were paying Catholic school tuition.

Los Angeles County Office of Education spokeswoman Margo Minecki said in a statement that the office has begun an audit of the Lennox Virtual Academy in response to parents’ concerns and The Times’ reporting. County officials are conducting the audit with the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, an agency often called on by school districts to help them fix serious financial problems.

“The audit will examine the fiscal and legal issues raised by the academy’s relationship with parochial schools,” Minecki said.

Lennox School District spokesman Davon Dean said in a statement that the district would cooperate with the inquiry, which he said “will confirm the legitimacy of our program.”

The Lennox Virtual Academy “is a program that we have great confidence in and is another tool for students, while enrolled in the public school system, to achieve academic excellence in a virtual environment,” Dean said.

An investigation by The Times found that Lennox paid some Catholic schools a monthly fee of $165 per child and gave them free Chromebook laptops in return for enrolling their students in the district’s virtual academy. At one of the Catholic schools still involved in the program, students are expected to use the online classes provided by Lennox for at least two hours a day. At one school that took part last year, it’s questionable whether participation in the online school was more than perfunctory.

All of the three Catholic schools that partnered with Lennox last year have severed their relationships with the district. Officials with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which oversees two of the schools, said they withdrew from the program after becoming increasingly concerned about the legality of enrolling Catholic school students in a public school program. The St. Francis Parish School in Bakersfield also quit the partnership, citing concern that the online curriculum offered by Lennox did not meet the school’s standards.

Resurrection Academy in Fontana began participating this year, according to the Diocese of San Bernardino, which approved of the school’s involvement.

Lennox schools Supt. Kent Taylor has defended the partnerships as legal and said the online school was one of several new initiatives he launched to reverse the district’s declining enrollment. He said it enrolled about 400 students last year.

In that respect, Taylor’s initiative was a success. Last school year, according to state education data, the district’s state funding increased by at least $3 million as overall enrollment rose, largely through students signed up for the virtual academy.

Last week, the Lennox school board voted to give Taylor a 2% raise — bringing his salary to $210,120 — and extend his contract to June 2021.

California Department of Education officials were first alerted to potential problems with Lennox’s online school in the spring, when a parent at the St. Francis Parish School anonymously sent them documents detailing the school’s partnership with Lennox.

Yet months passed before state education officials took action.

According to both the county and the state, in early August, state officials shared the St. Francis parent’s complaint with the Los Angeles County Office of Education. But any attempt to open an inquiry was soon mired in confusion over whether the state or the county would take the lead.

“Due to staffing changes at the state level, there was some uncertainty as to which agency would initiate an audit,” Minecki said. “The L.A. Times’ coverage prompted discussion to clarify that [the county education office] would move forward to examine the matter.”

The California Department of Education did not respond to repeated Times inquiries about whether what Lennox was doing was legal. But last week, spokesman Bill Ainsworth issued a statement about L.A. County’s audit.

“We are pleased LACOE will conduct an audit to look at the serious legal and fiscal questions raised by the parent and in recent news reports,” Ainsworth said.

“We do not know all the facts in this case,” he said. “But the law is clear in California that public funds can only be used to educate public school students, not students at parochial schools.”

anna.phillips@latimes.com

Twitter: @annamphillips

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
49°