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L.A. Unified targets well-known charter school for possible revocation

L.A. Unified targets well-known charter school for possible revocation
In 2014, El Camino Real Charter High students won the national Academic Decathlon. This week, the school received notice that its charter to operate could be revoked. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The well-regarded El Camino Real Charter High School faces a possible shutdown following an investigation by the Los Angeles Unified School District. Issues cited by the school system in a letter to the school this week include possible inappropriate spending, poor accounting and oversight, and violations of public-meeting rules.

The L.A. Board of Education will consider a formal "notice of violations" at its meeting next week, the first action in an extended, multi-step process that could lead to the campus returning to district control.

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A spokesman for El Camino said the school has worked diligently and successfully to address shortcomings in its policies and practices.

Charter schools are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. But the authorizing school district retains an oversight role and can revoke a charter or decline to renew it when there is significant misconduct, mismanagement or poor academic performance.

El Camino, in Woodland Hills, has been considered a generally successful campus both before and after 2011, when it converted to charter status under the leadership of Principal David Fehte. The school won the national Academic Decathlon in 2014.

Potential management issues involving El Camino came to light last year. In its latest documents, L.A. Unified accuses El Camino of demonstrating "an inability to determine how public funds are being used and identify specific instances of their use for personal expenses," adding that "fatal flaws in judgment … call into serious question the organization's ability to successfully implement the charter in accordance with applicable law and district requirements."

According to L.A. Unified, a sampling of 425 credit card expenses by five El Camino employees, including Fehte, revealed that "countless expenses were incurred without adherence to any uniform procedure, and without verification of the necessary details."

The school system also accused El Camino's board of improperly conducting public meetings by, for example, taking action on items that were not listed on the agendas to be voted on.

In a series of articles, the Los Angeles Daily News reported on Fehte's spending for such things as wine, first-class air travel and pricey hotel rooms.

Fehte has denied wrongdoing and said he inadvertently charged about $6,100 in personal expenses on his school credit card. He said he reimbursed the school as soon as these charges were pointed out to him.

Some of the expenses were incurred while Fehte was moonlighting as a college basketball talent scout for the San Antonio Spurs, according to the Daily News.

A statement from El Camino on Thursday called the district allegations "arbitrary and specious." The school contends that the key issues raised by L.A. Unified already have been addressed, and that some allegations are simply inaccurate.

In a statement, the school alluded to tensions between some district officials and charter schools. The growth of charter enrollment is one of several factors contributing to serious financial problems in the nation's second-largest school system.

El Camino "is witnessing first-hand the extreme measures a school district will take to wrestle back control of a successful charter school," the school's statement said. "There's no debating the popularity of charter schools within LAUSD and the desire to further expand innovation and parent choice in the public education arena. As LAUSD revenues continue to decline, the district has become more hostile towards charter schools."

Board of Education President Steve Zimmer defended the district's ongoing scrutiny.

"If those allegations prove to be true, and if this was a school leader in L.A. Unified, it would be my expectation that the superintendent would take appropriate disciplinary action," Zimmer said.

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Twitter: @howardblume

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