Founder and CEO of embattled Inspire charter schools resigns

The front entrance and desk of an Inspire office.
This office in Poway is where the Pacific Coast Academy Inspire charter school holds its board meetings.
(Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The founder and Chief Executive of the embattled Inspire charter school network has resigned, Inspire officials have announced.

The resignation of Herbert “Nick” Nichols on Friday comes after seven county superintendents, including those from Los Angeles and San Diego counties, officially requested a state fiscal agency to audit the Inspire network for potential fraud.

Nichols’ resignation is effective immediately, said Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for Inspire. No reason was given for his resignation.


Nichols could not be reached for comment Friday.

“We acknowledge and express our gratitude to him as one of the founders of the Inspire organization,” officials said in emails to Inspire staff and families Friday. “We at the Inspire District Office and the Inspire Family of Schools are dedicated to seeing the true Inspire model and the philosophy behind it continue to impact the children, families, and communities we serve. The schools have a strong group of leaders and teachers that are dedicated to meeting the educational and social needs of our students.”

Nichols has been on an unexplained leave of absence since late September. Inspire announced his leave of absence days after the California Charter Schools Assn., which advocates for and supports charter schools, announced that it had expelled Inspire from its membership.

Steven Lawrence, who has been serving as Inspire’s interim leader while Nichols was on leave, will continue as executive director for the rest of the school year.

Nichols was serving as the executive director of Inspire District Office, a nonprofit corporation that he helped to found that has been collecting 15% of Inspire schools’ revenue and was providing many services to Inspire schools. He was making a $380,000 annual salary, according to Inspire.

Education officials have raised questions about Inspire District Office for its various financial transactions with Inspire schools and corporations affiliated with Inspire.

Since the first Inspire school opened in 2014, the charter network has grown rapidly to include an estimated 35,000-plus students across the state, alarming education officials who question the rapid growth, the San Diego Union-Tribune found in an investigation of Inspire.


Meanwhile, Inspire schools have engaged in heavy cash borrowing with an outside charter school capital firm and with related Inspire corporations.

The superintendents said in their audit request they have reason to believe Inspire engaged in fiscal malfeasance, conflicts of interest, manipulation of enrollment and revenue and other improper activity.

“The concerns regarding Inspire are pervasive across the state, and require immediate attention to prevent further waste of public education dollars and profiting off state apportionment not used to provide a complete and quality education to the students enrolled in the school,” six county superintendents wrote in their letter earlier this month to the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, the state agency that audits schools for fraud.

In addition to San Diego, El Dorado, Sutter and Kern counties have authorized Inspire schools in their area. Ventura and Placer counties said Inspire was operating unauthorized resource centers in their areas.

Los Angeles County joined in the request for the audit because Inspire is headquartered in its area and because four Inspire schools are members of its charter special education agency, even though no Inspire school is authorized to operate in L.A. County.

Schools Supt. Paul Gothold of San Diego County also sent the state team a separate letter with additional concerns. San Diego County has two Inspire schools authorized by the Dehesa School District: Cabrillo Point Academy and Pacific Coast Academy.

In a statement earlier this month, interim Executive Director Lawrence said Inspire has “a great deal of respect” for the state fiscal team and is prepared to work with it. Inspire had recently met with the team to request a review, Lawrence said.

“As an organization, we are committed to continual improvement of our practices in order to better serve our students and families,” Lawrence said. “We expect the FCMAT experts will ultimately be able to provide additional guidance and direction that will be useful for all of our schools going forward.”

Taketa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune