Column: A $471,000 charter school exec, and another case of gutter politics in LAUSD school board race

A Celerity employee who asked to remain anonymous because of a fear of retaliation said federal agents collected laptops and copied data from computers. (Jan. 26, 2017)

Where should we begin?

With the FBI raid of a charter school company that has a $471,000-a-year honcho, or with the “alternative facts” political mailers smearing an L.A. Unified school board member?

Well, let’s start with math, then move on to civics.

Last week, federal agents stormed the headquarters of Celerity Educational Group, which manages seven schools in Southern California. The LAUSD inspector general, meanwhile, has been looking into allegations of fraud and financial mismanagement.


My colleague Anna M. Phillips reported that a teacher at Celerity Dyad Charter School in South Los Angeles remembers spending her own money for supplies, because the school didn’t provide them to students, nor did it have a library, cafeteria or gym.

But Celerity — funded primarily with public money — went all out for a staff party in Hollywood, with open bars, casino tables, karaoke and limos. And in 2013, Celerity CEO Vielka McFarlane was paid $471,842.

How could this happen?

It’s easy. Charter schools have public money and private management, with fewer regulations — and often lesser union representation — than traditional schools.

But do all of them open their doors to all students, including those with learning challenges? If the charters do a little better in testing than traditional schools, as Celerity has, is it because they teach to the test or because students have more family support?

You could argue endlessly about the pros and cons of charters and never get within five miles of common ground. The topic is toxic, and inclined to get even more so. President Trump’s Education secretary nominee, charter and voucher backer Betsy DeVos, is hailed as a savior by some, but denounced by critics as an enemy of public education, of teachers, and of children who will get left behind when public money is drained from already-struggling schools.

My standing rules on the subject are as follows:

First, some charter schools are great, some aren’t, and the same can be said of traditional public schools.


Second, parents don’t care if the school is traditional, or a magnet or a charter. They want what’s best for their children.

And third, an FBI raid is always a good thing when a charter administrator is pulling down nearly half a million dollars, much of it paid by you and me.

Now let me move on to a somewhat related topic — the attack on LAUSD school board President Steve Zimmer, who is running for reelection in March.

Voter turnout for school board races is generally abominable, but campaign spending is astronomical. On the one side, you’ve got big bucks from the teachers union, and on the other side you’ve got millionaires spending even more money to either support so-called reform candidates or to torpedo candidates seen as union allies.


Zimmer, a longtime LAUSD teacher and counselor before his election to the board in 2009, is a thoughtful guy who digs deep on complicated matters and deliberates — sometimes forever. You can’t always predict where he’ll end up, a commendable quality if you ask me.

But he is a repeat target of the “reformers,” in part because the teachers union supports him and recently kicked $150,000 into a campaign on Zimmer’s behalf. Four years ago, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came after Zimmer, donating $1 million to an independent group that wanted to dump him. This time around, former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan has coughed up $1 million, a good portion of which is funding a group called “LA Students for Change, Opposing Steve Zimmer for School Board 2017.”

This is not surprising. Riordan, as he told me Tuesday, has long believed the teachers union stands in the way of reform. And he said he doesn’t think Zimmer has done much of anything on the school board.

Riordan has every right to feel that way and spend his money as he wishes. But you get the distinct impression from reading the mailers sent out by LA Students for Change that Zimmer is a vile human being whose crimes against children and humanity are unlimited.


The mailers would have you believe Zimmer fired good teachers while protecting bad teachers, single-handedly drove the district into the ground financially, and covered for child molesters, ruining children’s lives in the process and costing the district $300 million in payouts.

He also was the mastermind behind the planned $1-billion iPad debacle, according to the mailers. It was a scandal, says one flier, that “began behind a closed door.” Zimmer’s door.

Actually, no.

That’s not even remotely the case.


I spent a lot of time writing about the iPad and software debacle, and I can assure you the iPad plan was spawned by former Supt. John Deasy.


Deasy was working on it before anyone knew that he was working on it. He was determined to charge ahead, pummel anyone in his way, and take his bows before a cheering crowd of admiring school reformers.

Instead, the iPad crashed, Deasy left, and an investigation was launched.


Zimmer initially supported the iPad scheme, but says he did so based in part on incomplete information provided by the administration. Zimmer later said he regretted wanting so urgently to give disadvantaged students a boost that he didn’t initially apply enough scrutiny to Deasy’s botched plan.

By the way, Riordan didn’t know much about the recipients of his $1-million donation, except to say that LA Students for Change was affiliated with the California Charter Schools Assn.

Gary Borden, the vice president of California Charter Schools, defended the accuracy of the Zimmer mailers. And he said the teachers union had put out a misleading and unfair mailer attacking reform candidates.

My advice is the same as it has always been.


This election season, when mailers arrive in your mailbox, shred them, burn them, throw the ashes in the street and run over them with your car.


You’ll be much better informed come election day.

To read the article in Spanish, click here


Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez


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