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California

Law enforcement seizes records of closed L.A. charter school

José Cole-Gutiérrez, the head of L.A. Unified’s charter school division
José Cole-Gutiérrez, the head of L.A. Unified’s charter school division, argued in April that Community Preparatory Academy should be closed. Federal agents raided the home of the school’s former leader on Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Federal law enforcement agents have seized records from the home of the former director of Community Preparatory Academy, a Los Angeles charter school that recently closed amid allegations of fiscal mismanagement.

The raid was carried out Tuesday morning by several agencies working in conjunction, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Secret Service with assistance from the FBI. Also taking part was the Los Angeles Unified School District through its inspector general.

The search warrant is under seal and the target of the probe has not been named, but CPA, as the school was known to many, had a lengthy list of problems. The L.A. Board of Education voted in April to close it at the end of the academic year over the objections of its operators.

Supporters of CPA argued, unsuccessfully, that the school was doing well academically and had turned around its management issues. The school district’s charter-school office took issue with this characterization. Academically, the school had a mixed record compared with nearby traditional public schools, with its students performing a little better in some areas and worse in others. And the district was not persuaded that new management had turned the corner.

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“Throughout the term of the charter, CPA has demonstrated a lack of organizational management,” wrote the district’s charter division in a report to the Board of Education.

The district repeatedly sent warning notices over issues such as minimally qualified teachers, inadequate teacher training, misassignment of teachers outside their subject area and a high ratio of substitutes, the report stated.

Some of the financial difficulties stemmed from a slow start. In the first year of its five-year run, school leaders recruited fewer than 80 students, throwing CPA into deficit spending from the get-go.

But the money problems ran deeper, according to an analysis overseen by L.A. Unified charter division Director José Cole-Gutiérrez.

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During one review, the charter division could not confirm the enrollment of 60 students claimed by the school, raising the question of whether the charter was inflating its enrollment to qualify for more state funding. The charter division also tallied more than $180,000 in spending that was not properly supported or documented.

Separately, L.A. Unified asserted that CPA owes the district more than $80,000 for food services the district provided to students.

Charter schools are privately managed public schools that are exempt from some rules that govern campuses run by a traditional school district. Charters are authorized by a local district, the county or the state, typically under agreements that must be renewed every five years.

L.A. Unified had approved CPA and was responsible both for annual and five-year reviews. When L.A. Unified chose not to renew the charter, CPA could have appealed the decision to the L.A. County Office of Education, but its leaders elected not to do so.

This year, CPA served 338 students in kindergarten through eighth grade at two sites, one in Carson and the other on the border of Inglewood and Manchester Square. Calls to both locations Tuesday were not answered. One line was disconnected.

Until recently, CPA was managed by Janis Bucknor, and it was her Los Angeles home that was the location of the raid, according to two sources with knowledge of the probe who are not authorized to comment publicly.

Bucknor was not part of the delegation that argued in April for saving CPA — she was no longer running the school — but her actions remain under scrutiny. The L.A. Unified charter division singled out $76,985 in payments from the school to the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning — which was incorporated by Bucknor — and to Philip A. Bucknor, her husband. These payments reflect inappropriate conflicts of interest, the district concluded.

In a response last year, the school defended these payments and other actions, saying in part that CPA’s board of directors had authorized them properly.

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“At various times Philip Bucknor has provided legal services for CPA,” the school wrote to L.A. Unified. “Those instances are both paid and pro bono. Discussions concerning those services have taken place during board meetings wherein updates on the progress of legal matters have been given. Reviews and approvals of matters concerning those services have also taken place.”

Attempts to contact Bucknor and her husband were not successful.


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