El Camino charter has a month to address alleged shortcomings
A casual observer could be excused for thinking there must be two El Camino high schools in Los Angeles.
One, a well-managed, long-running success story that delivers solid and sometimes spectacular academic results. The other, in need of appropriate oversight, with a free-spending principal and loose financial controls.
Last week, the L.A. Board of Education focused on the problems portion of the alleged split personality, unanimously approving a “notice of violations” that cites inappropriate spending, poor accounting and violations of public meeting rules.
The charter school has a month to address the allegations.
Although the school’s positives are widely expected to help it survive, L.A. Unified could act to revoke its charter to operate, forcing out the current management and bringing the campus back under district control.
The case is one more example of tensions between the nation’s second-largest school system and its charter schools, which manage their own public funding and are free from some rules that govern traditional campuses. El Camino Real Charter High School was run by the district until 2011.
At last week’s meeting, board member Scott Schmerelson said El Camino as a charter remains “an excellent school.”
But it “is not a private school,” said Schmerelson, who represents the west San Fernando Valley area where the school is located. “It is a public school. They have to go by the same rules we do.”
The El Camino case could test the limits of that assertion. El Camino, for example, has declined to tell the district whether it has taken disciplinary action against Executive Director Dave Fehte, who has come under internal and external scrutiny. Such action could be considered a confidential personnel matter, to be kept even from L.A. Unified.
A report from the district’s charter school division accuses El Camino of demonstrating “an inability to determine how public funds are being used,” 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 from 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 for voting on the agendas.
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 expensive 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.
As the school’s principal, Fehte led the effort to make El Camino a charter and he’s been the school’s most visible leader, but he took no part in last week’s presentation before the Board of Education.
It fell instead to a group of El Camino teachers and administrators to offer evidence that the school’s performance has improved and that its management practices are exemplary.
Unlike in some other cases, the district has not suggested El Camino is at any risk of financial collapse. And El Camino students annually shine in the academic decathlon competition, winning the national title as recently as 2014.
“We knew six years ago that converting to a charter would be a growing experience,” said veteran teacher Susan Freitag, an El Camino graduate who chairs the visual and performing arts department. “I believe we have surpassed our expectations. As a charter we have flourished.”
The school has hired an outside firm to investigate potential misconduct by Fehte and to review all credit card use. It’s supposed to deliver a confidential report to El Camino’s board of directors Sept. 21 — two days before the school’s deadline to respond to L.A. Unified.
El Camino also has collected credit cards from senior administrators and tightened policy for their use. Members of the El Camino team said they thought they were working out issues collaboratively with L.A. Unified and said they were blindsided by the notice of violations.
El Camino has had its share of issues with L.A. Unified — in part due to the district’s financial woes and its attempts to boost enrollment and win back students from charters.
In 2015 and early this year, L.A. Unified spurned plans to let El Camino expand by taking over closed district campuses. In April, the district blocked El Camino’s attempt to shift the retirement costs of about 10 teachers from El Camino to L.A. Unified.
El Camino supporters said their school is the victim of an anti-charter trend.
Still, the odds appear to be on their side.
In the last three years, the Board of Education approved six notices of violations, but only one led to a charter being revoked.
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