LA charter school refuses to release spending report
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Embattled El Camino Real Charter High School has formally denied requests to release an investigative report by an outside firm into administrator spending and reimbursement policies.
The governing board of the Woodland Hills charter school commissioned the Chino Hills-based Oracle Investigations Group, Inc. in June to conduct an independent probe after the Los Angeles Unified School District warned the school of possible financial violations last October. Since then, LAUSD’s Board of Education has unanimously approved a “notice of violations” — the first step to potentially revoking the school’s charter. The notice alleged “fiscal mismanagement” related to administrators’ credit card spending and other issues at the school.
The report on the Oracle probe, estimated to cost $20,000, is “exempt from disclosure” under the California Public Records Act partly due to “attorney-client privilege,” according to a Sept. 30 letter to the Daily News by Attorney Kimberly Rodriguez of the Young, Minney and Corr law firm.
“As legal counsel for ECR our firm retained the services of Oracle Investigations Group, Inc.,” Rodriguez wrote. “The report at issue reflects confidential communication between ECR and our firm for the purposes of the provision of legal advice.”
El Camino social studies teacher James DeLarme called the school’s response Tuesday “really disappointing.”
The El Camino Real Alliance board “kept saying they commissioned this company...to look into it and there was going to be this report coming out — and that would give us some answers” DeLarme said. “It feels like a bait-and-switch at the end to kind of hide it.”
More than 50 teachers and community members protested outside the school last Wednesday, calling for El Camino Executive Director David Fehte, who has come under fire for seemingly liberal credit card spending, and Chief Business Officer Marshall Mayotte to be held accountable for the school’s problems — and for the school to release the Oracle report. Nearly two dozen other staff members gathered informally later that day to express their “complete support” of the administration.
Fehte has reimbursed the school for more than $6,000 in “inadvertent personal” charges made on a school-issued American Express card in the past three years while the El Camino board has updated its fiscal policies and procedures three times, including prohibiting using school funds to purchase alcohol, since the district’s 2015 warning.
Meanwhile, the El Camino board is holding an urgent closed session meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday to discuss possible “discipline/dismissal/release” of one or more employees. It is the third meeting in which potential employee discipline has been discussed since Sept. 16. El Camino officials say that action was taken last month against one employee but that no one has been fired.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said the El Camino board “can’t hide behind attorney-client privilege” because it’s the board’s choice whether or not to release the report.
“The public should press back and say, ‘we understand you have the power to withhold it but you also have the option to release it,’ — that’s how attorney-client privilege works,” he said. “If you choose to be silent, you probably owe voters an explanation.”
At least two El Camino board members, President Jonathan Wasser, and Scott Silverstein have said they support releasing the Oracle report.
The law firm’s response also stated that “the public interest in withholding those records clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure” and cited a “personnel file exemption.”
But Carl Petersen, a candidate for a seat on the LAUSD Board of Education whose own request for the Oracle report was also denied, said he thinks the opposite is true.
“I would argue that since the public has paid for this report and it provides insight into how the public’s education funds have been (spent) there is a very strong public interest in favor of disclosure,” he said in a Sept. 23 letter.LA charter school refuses to release spending report: