Santa Ana school officials voted unanimously Tuesday night to strip a popular school of its charter, a move that could leave 1,300 students -- most of them Latino immigrants -- scrambling to find a new school next year.
"It breaks my heart to have to vote this way, because I want to see our community educated," said School Boardmember Sal Tinajero. "But it has to be done correctly and it has to be done by the law."
District representatives and attorneys laid out a detailed case of what they said was financial mismanagement at Albor Charter School. "We're entitled to find out where that money went," said Sukhi Sandhu, an attorney representing the district.
The 5-0 vote stemmed from a recent state-mandated audit that found misuse of state funds, a conflict of interest by the school's executive director, and deficiencies in student testing and teacher qualifications. The audit led Santa Ana Unified School District staff to recommend that Albor's charter be revoked.
Albor is among scores of charter schools statewide facing issues of financial accountability and student performance. The best known is the California Charter Academy, which closed 50 schools serving thousands of students last summer amid a state investigation into financial improprieties.
More than 100 Albor parents and students held a protest outside the board meeting, chanting "Albor" and "Si se puede" -- "Yes, we can" -- and carrying signs that read "Viva Albor."
The school, which opened in 2002, provides high school classes and vocational programs in computer science and medical assistant training. Albor offers evening and weekend classes, provides transportation and offers child care.
Auditors found that $1.8 million in state funds were used to school nearly 500 students who were older than 22 -- something that had been prohibited since July under a new state regulation. Additionally, the audit questioned Emilio Vazquez's role as both the executive director of Albor and chairman of Mi-Vocational Schools Inc., an organization that has been paid millions of dollars to run the school. Auditors also questioned a bonus payment to Vazquez as well as tens of thousands of dollars in payments to his former wife.
Sandhu also alleged Tuesday night that the chief financial officer of Mi-Vocational Schools was romantically linked to Vazquez and that newly discovered documents showed that she transferred $400,000 in school funds to private accounts.
"There are a substantial number of concerns about whether they're really meeting their stated mission and whether they are being accountable [with] public dollars," Santa Ana school board President Audrey Yamagata-Noji said Tuesday. "It appears to be so egregious in terms of violations that after careful review and a lot of time and lot of opportunities for them to respond, [the district] has moved forward to this recommendation."
Board member Rosemarie Avila said, "You have got to play by the rules, no matter how good-hearted [the intentions]. You have to be accountable and open."
An attorney for Albor vowed to sue the district if the charter was revoked.
Vazquez says that he has done nothing illegal and that he hasn't had a chance to make his case to the school board.
"Right now, the board actually has no facts; they only have assumptions," Vazquez said. "The reality is we are doing something good for the community."
Despite the charter being revoked, the school will be able to complete the academic year; students under 23 could transfer to other public schools.