Financial troubles and a shocking suicide have upended this tiny L.A. school district
Word reverberated through the Lennox School District in early June that former Supt. Kent Taylor was found dead in his home — shocking news that followed the popular leader’s abrupt resignation in April without public explanation.
Taylor had recently certified the financial good health of the Lennox district, which he promoted as a model of innovative programs in engineering, dentistry and online studies. Viewed as bold and charismatic, he was well known where he lived in Colton — winning five local school board elections. A product of Inglewood public schools, Taylor, 54, was seen by his supporters as the hometown boy made good.
But in the months since his death, later ruled a suicide, deep troubles have been unmasked in this tiny school district that serves mostly low-income Latino students, 93% of whom qualify for free lunches and whose academic achievement is below state standards. The rapid-fire revelations have included the near financial insolvency of the district, allegations against Taylor of sexual misconduct, possible credit card misuse by at least four current and former district officials and an internal investigation of costly contracts.
The turmoil has taken a toll on this system of five elementary, one middle and three charter schools in the shadow of LAX flight paths. The district’s troubles have forced more than $5.4 million in budget cuts, leading to reductions in staff, services and education programs — and the fallout from ongoing investigations is not yet known. A state official last week indicated that a further review of questionable activity in Lennox could result in funds being withheld.
The new superintendent, Scott Price, former financial chief for the L.A. Unified School District, insists that insolvency has been averted.
“We have turned the corner,” Price said. “We feel confident in our direction.”
On the financial brink
Shortly after Taylor’s departure, the Los Angeles County Office of Education criticized Lennox for squandering a once-healthy reserve through “deficit spending and failure to maintain adequate reserves and fund balances, inability to accurately estimate the ending fund balance” and “lack of monitoring of cash.”
Following Taylor, more than half a dozen senior staff and longtime employees resigned, including the top budget, facilities and personnel managers, according to school district records and interviews.
After Price came on board in September, the county approved an $11-million loan to keep the district’s $71-million budget afloat. It must be repaid by July 2020, which Price has pledged to do.
The district has avoided teacher layoffs but has ended its dentistry program and after-school Mandarin-language instruction, and trimmed back engineering training. Many elementary students will no longer take field trips to a college campus. In all, 24 positions have been cut in the small school system at a time when test scores have been rising. In 2019, 36% of students met state standards in math and 43% in English.
“We have demonstrated a united commitment to reductions that reestablish our fiscal responsibility and least affect students,” Price said.
Sexual harassment claim
Davon Dean, former communications officer for the Lennox district, filed a sexual harassment claim against the district in August, after sending a letter to the district outlining the allegations several days before Taylor resigned. The claim alleges that Taylor pressured him into a sexual relationship, insisting on a “minimum of three long, body hugs per day” during which Taylor would grope him and simulate sex behind closed office doors.
Dean also alleges that Taylor would insist that they share a hotel room after school board meetings, conventions and other events to engage in sexual activity, the claim said.
The discomfort of the relationship ultimately compelled Dean to quit his job, said Jon Webster, the attorney representing Dean.
An attorney representing Lennox, Tom Madruga, described the relationship as consensual.
When the harassment allegations surfaced, Madruga arranged for an outside firm to investigate for the district. That inquiry later expanded to include credit card use and the work of consultants, Price said.
The district has declined to release the results of its internal investigation into the harassment allegations to the public, citing the possibility of litigation.
Possible credit card misuse
Taylor authorized credit cards for board members and had a $10,000 monthly limit on his own district card. The Times reviewed his charges for 2017, and they included months in which he spent $8,299, $8,577 and $6,304. Three other months approached $5,000. That year, Taylor charged close to $44,000, including some expenses on three work-related trips to San Diego, two to Palm Springs, and visits to San Antonio, Denver and New York City.
The charges also included at least 14 stays at hotels near Lennox, about 70 miles from his home, totaling more than $4,600. He received a salary of about $200,000 a year.
In October, Lennox school board members agreed to turn over an internal investigation and the credit card records of four officials named in a records request from the county district attorney, which opened its review in response to a complaint, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said.
The request, reviewed by The Times, sought records for accounting supervisor Leticia Gomez, current board member Angela Fajardo and former board member Shannon Thomas-Allen. None of the three responded to email and telephone requests from The Times for comment. Taylor’s records also are under review.
The district has declined to release the results of its internal credit card investigation, with Price citing the ongoing review by the district attorney’s office. In a memo reviewed by The Times, Price also advised board members to decline interview requests from the news organization. Board members Fajardo, Sergio Hernández Jr. and Marisol Cruz did not respond to multiple interview requests and emailed questions about their credit card use and other district issues. Angeles Gonzalez, who was elected to the board in 2018 and did not receive a district credit card, also did not respond.
Board member Alexis Aceves, a community activist who also was elected in 2018, said she refused Taylor’s offer of a district-funded credit card, seeing it as unnecessary for an elected official in a district as small as Lennox.
“Offers and encouragement to spend were expected anytime I was with Kent,” she said of her interaction with Taylor.
Serving on the board is a part-time voluntary role, with a stipend of about $300 a month plus reimbursement for expenses.
Credit card statements obtained through the state Public Records Act show that Hernández, Fajardo and Cruz traveled several times a year since 2017, apparently to education-related conferences, although the purpose of every trip could not be determined from the statements. In 2017 and 2018, Hernández’s card, for example, listed charges in Denver, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Phoenix, Washington and Portland, Ore.
Fajardo, who has identified herself on social media as a Spanish teacher for L.A. Unified, spent nearly $1,000 in 2017 over six visits to local office supply stores. She also spent $214.03 at Lakeshore Learning, which sells teaching supplies, and $299.55 at the USC Bookstore.
Among current board members, Cruz charged the most: $7,743 in 2017 and $9,893 in 2018. She also had travel-related costs and spent at office supply stores and retailers. On Oct. 20, 2017, she spent $410.13 at Costco. Cruz also charged at local restaurants, including $200 at the Cheesecake Factory on Jan. 14, 2018, and $227.34 at Truxton’s on May 5, 2018.
Her spending also took in self-help and motivational seminar costs, including the Conscious Life Expo in February 2018 near Los Angeles International Airport. Charges during that period included the expo ($170), the Health Spectrum ($134.06) and two at Hilton Hotels LAX ($310.04 and $525.64). She also subscribed to self-help materials from online personal development coach Jesse Elder and a site called LearnDoBecome.com.
Fajardo, Hernández and Cruz have turned in their cards over the last several months, Price said.
The district’s recently approved budget has eliminated funding for conference travel for both board and community members.
The portion of the internal investigation that dealt with consultants looked closely at the work of Ben Leavitt, a key advisor behind one of Taylor’s most controversial initiatives: a project to enroll tuition-paying Catholic school students — many from more than 100 miles away — into Lennox through a newly created Lennox Virtual Academy. After The Times published an investigation of the arrangement, Lennox came under pressure from the county to shut down the online academy and did so as of July 1.
Leavitt’s firm, School Management Solutions, collected per-student fees totaling $752,205. Lennox paid the Catholic schools $165 a month per student.
In an emailed response to questions from The Times, Leavitt defended the academy.
“As a general rule,” Leavitt said, “the parents of private school students contribute to the public school system through tax dollars, same as the parents of public school students, but receive a small fraction of services from the public school system.”
Leavitt also noted that the state appeared to recognize the academy’s legitimacy by continuing to provide funding to Lennox for the Catholic school students.
Although the administration of previous state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson permitted the funding, current officials appear to be troubled.
“We are deeply concerned about allegations that public funds were misused by the Lennox School District and we are looking into it,” said Deputy Supt. Kindra Britt, who joined the California Department of Education under current state Supt. Tony Thurmond.
During the 2018-19 school year, Lennox received about $2.8 million in state funds for its academy students, according to district records. Because the state provides transition money for districts that face a sudden, steep drop in enrollment, the state is paying a one-year allotment of $2.8 million in the 2019-20 school year to make up for the loss of the Catholic school students.
Britt said the state routinely provides such one-time funding to aid school districts that experience enrollment declines. However, if enrollment “was not appropriately reported, we will take all necessary actions including, if needed, adjusting funding accordingly,” she said.
Another element of Leavitt’s business ties to the district has come under scrutiny.
Leavitt is a partner in CWDL, a San Diego-based accounting firm that had various contracts with the school system totaling more than $1 million. CWDL provided management services for the nutrition and Associated Student Body accounts, and other areas as requested by the district, district officials said.
However, Lennox’s internal inquiry found some invoices to be “vague, lacking detail and clarity,” Price said. Lennox’s internal review of consulting contracts was among the materials turned over to the district attorney, he said.
Leavitt said his firm did extensive work for Lennox, all properly submitted and approved.
Another vendor that came under district review was A-Team Security, which received more than $1.2 million annually for the last three full years of Taylor’s tenure. Price said that the company provided services as charged but that they were nonessential. The firm, for example, was providing a neighborhood patrol, security for the district office and services at night and over the weekends.
Throughout his tenure, Taylor received strong support from community members and union leaders, several of whom he promoted and approved for extra paid work assignments.
Beatriz Torres, who represents most non-teaching Lennox employees as president of Local 575 of the California School Employees Assn., broke with Taylor last spring, shortly before his resignation. She went public with a union analysis that listed costly consulting contracts and a surge in overtime payments, including nearly $40,000 in 2017 to Dean, the communications director alleging harassment. His regular pay that year was $55,709, according to Transparent California, which tracks public salaries.
Lennox Teachers Assn. President Priscilla Avila, who was recently elected, said that anyone found to have engaged in improper conduct should be held accountable and that the district’s troubles have unfairly tarnished the excellent work of its employees.
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