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O.C. Ed Board balks at punishing Costa Mesa charter school for possible violations

A sign for the International School for Science and Culture, seen in 2019, near the Harper Assessment Center in Costa Mesa.
A sign for the International School for Science and Culture, seen in 2019, in Costa Mesa. The Orange County Department of Education alleges the school has committed multiple violations, but board members have stopped short of issuing a notice of violation.
(File Photo)

A Costa Mesa charter school has until July 7 to demonstrate how it will correct several operational indiscretions being investigated by county education officials as potential violations, even as the Orange County Board of Education hesitates to take punitive action.

The International School for Science and Culture (ISSAC) opened its doors to K-8 students in 2019, advertising a standards-based curriculum focused on science, technology, reading and writing, engineering, arts and math, with multilingual offerings.

But in recent months, the Orange County Department of Education has issued multiple notices of concern to school heads, who they claim overreported their enrollment to the state and received disproportionate funding, held classes in a facility not zoned for K-12 education and charged fees for instruction.

ISSAC’s potential noncompliance was discussed by members of the Board of Education, the authorizing agency for the charter, in two regular meetings on June 2 and 16.

The first day of school at International School for Science and Culture in Costa Mesa in September 2019.
The first day of school at International School for Science and Culture in Costa Mesa in September 2019. ISSAC leaders are being investigated by the county for noncompliance issues.
(File Photo)

Aracely Chastain, director of OCDE’s Charter School Unit, recommended the board issue a notice of violation to document the points of concern and provide the school a chance to remedy issues within 30 days.

“You have authorized 18 charter schools, and very few come to the board,” Chastain said at the June 2 meeting. “At this point, this is the third time we’ve done this with ISSAC in the two years that they’ve been opened.”

OCDE officials allege the school reported to the California Department of Education an enrollment of 150 students for the 2020-21 school year, when a budget submitted to the county for the same fiscal year projected growth of 100 students. The state consequently overpaid the school, based on the inaccurate attendance figures.

In July 2020, when students were learning from home during the pandemic, ISSAC relocated from a building leased from Newport-Mesa Unified School District to the Boys and Girls Club of Costa Mesa, a facility owned by the city and leased to the youth organization.

A student and her friend during the first day of school at the International School for Science and Culture in Costa Mesa.
A student and her friend during the first day of school at the International School for Science and Culture in Costa Mesa in September 2019. Orange County Board of Education members said in June they hope to resolve issues of noncompliance at the charter school.
(File Photo)

County officials learned from the city the property was not zoned for K-12 education and ISSAC would need to obtain a conditional use permit to operate there under a sublease.

Chastain said staff repeatedly told school founder and executive director, Padmini Srinivasan, no instruction could take place at the facility until a permit was secured.

However, in March of this year, the county received a complaint from a parent claiming students of the charter school were attending a hybrid instructional program at the Boys and Girls Club, participating in classes online with the help of instructional aides, for a fee.

Chastain estimated ISSAC has collected around $64,000 for such services since the 2019-20 school year.

“Some of these families claimed these fees as deductions on their taxes,” she said.

Board members, who approved ISSAC’s petition and charter in March 2019, expressed their disappointment in the situation.

“We’ve really gone out of our way to help your school,” board President Ken Williams said during the June 2 meeting. “I am not sure if this was intentional, or whether it was a well-intended person who did not understand the rules.

“I don’t want to take any punitive actions that would hurt the school, but we really do need reassurances we’re going to be within the boundaries of the law,” he continued.

During the two June meetings, Srinivasan and a team of legal and financial consultants representing ISSAC attempted to explain the missteps.

They described how officials confused two sets of financial documents and submitted the wrong paperwork to the state. To rectify the situation, state officials have agreed to withhold future apportionments until the overpayment is recouped.

Srinivasan also explained the school offered daytime childcare services for families who could not stay home with children doing distance learning during the pandemic and brought in special-needs students for instruction when guidelines allowed the accommodation.

“The pandemic has created a lot of new challenges and ISSAC does everything it can, with changing circumstances and limitations, to support the students,” she said at the June 2 meeting.

School officials told board members the charter school’s board of directors would meet Thursday and decide on returning the fees collected for childcare services. Chastain requested Srinivasan submit a plan in writing detailing steps to be taken.

ISSAC has also since applied for a conditional use permit that would allow them to operate out of the Boys and Girls Club but had still not received approval as of June 16.

Although a notice of violation was urged by Chastain, board members elected to give Srinivasan and her team more time to provide a written response explaining how the issues of noncompliance occurred and work with OCDE officials to rectify them in a timely manner.

“I’d like to bring us back in two weeks to reconsider it, assess where we are and look at how much has progressed in that period,” Williams said at the June 16 meeting.

David Patterson, president of California Charter Authorizing Professionals, a Sacramento nonprofit supporting agencies that provide oversight of charter schools, said although notices of violation provide opportunities to cure or explain problems, they can be a tough call for authorizing agencies to make.

“It’s the first step that can lead to a motion to revoke [a charter],” Patterson said. “You can issue a notice of concern on small issues, and you can have a number of those for issues that need to be clarified. But if you’re going to do a notice of violation, it’s one of a significant and potentially serious nature.”

Such notices are publicly recorded and may affect a school’s reputation or whether its charter is renewed, he added.

Even with the county board’s holding off on issuing such a notice, time is running out for the International School for Science and Culture, where classes are set to begin Aug. 23.

And to compound matters, ISSAC has applied for a material revision to its charter to allow it to expand to serve students on two campuses — both at the Boys and Girls Club and the NMUSD-owned facility it previously occupied.

School leaders requested the review process be expedited, even though the school would need to have its conditional use permit for the Boys and Girls Club site in hand for its application to be complete.

Srinivasan said she was told approval could take from six to eight weeks and expressed confidence all outstanding documents could be provided in time.

“It’s cutting it close, but we have a good shot at getting it done, particularly because they have a lot of the background information already and have had it for such a long time,” she told board members.

Costa Mesa staff confirmed Monday ISSAC’s application for a conditional use permit to operate at the facility was submitted June 7.

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