A local charter school group that is battling for survival has turned to a well-known and sometimes controversial education figure to take charge. Magnolia Public Schools, under fire for money management and other issues, has hired former L.A. school board President Caprice Young as its new chief executive.
Magnolia, based in Westminster, operates eight schools within the L.A. Unified School District, but three face closing after district officials decided last year not to renew them. A court injunction is keeping them open.
Charters are free, publicly funded schools that are exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses.
A recent L.A. school district audit concluded that Magnolia Educational and Research Foundation was $1.66 million in the red, owed $2.8 million to the schools it oversees and met the federal definition of insolvency. In addition, the audit found fiscal mismanagement, including lack of disclosure of debts, weak fiscal controls over the principals' use of debit cards and questionable payments for immigration fees and services, among other issues.
Young said Magnolia is not in financial trouble but suffers from weak management and a lack of transparency — problems she said would be corrected in an effort to win support from L.A. Unified.
"We will go through all the finances," she said. "These schools are doing a really great job for kids … and I think they can do an even better job. But none of that matters unless they're managing taxpayer resources transparently and effectively. That is Job One."
Young, 49, served a four-year school board term, which ended in 2003 after the teachers union successfully targeted her for defeat. She then built the California Charters Schools Assn. into a powerful organization as its leader.
In 2010, she took over ICEF Public Schools, a charter group that was on the verge of financial collapse. She recruited donors and slashed costs — and received praise from parents after preventing a merger with another charter organization. She lost that position after a falling-out with former Mayor Richard Riordan, a major ICEF funder, who had pushed for the merger.
More recently, Young has worked with Acton-Agua Dulce Unified to develop a plan for overseeing charter schools. The district, which has four schools, authorized charters to open in other school systems as a way to raise revenue, according to court documents.
L.A. Unified and another school district sued over the practice. An L.A. County Superior Court judge ruled recently that Acton-Agua Dulce violated state law in how it granted the charters. But the judge did not entirely bar the district from granting charters outside its boundaries.
Magnolia, meanwhile, has struggled with its image as well as the allegations of mismanagement.
Critics have asserted that the Magnolia campuses are among more than 100 charter schools that have ties to a U.S.-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen.
In an interview, Young said that she was unaware of any direct links with Gulen.
She said the focus of the schools is math and science and that they seek to embrace "all cultures and any culture." Most of the students, she added, are from low-income Latino families.
The schools have recruited math and science teachers from a university in Istanbul, she said. Eleven teachers, out of 325 total employees, she said, are in the United States on work visas.
Magnolia also operates three schools outside of L.A. Unified — in Costa Mesa, Santa Clara and San Diego. Total enrollment is about 4,000 students.