Corey G. Johnson | California watch Blog
Sept 2 --An audit released this week that accuses a former San Fernando Valley charter school administrator of misusing roughly $2.7 million in taxpayers funds could tip the scales in favor of more transparency and accountability for all charters.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the LA Unified School District's inspector general office found that Edward Fiszer, former principal of NEW Academy Canoga Park, allegedly transferred nearly $1.1 million from the school accounts to his personal Ameritrade account.
Auditors say Fiszer ultimately lost the money speculating on unsuccessful investments in the financial market. The money transfers took place between July 1, 2007 and Sept. 30, 2009, the report stated.
Auditors also contend that Fiszer paid a former teacher $129,450 to be a grant writer, although the school already had a company on contract for grant-writing services. It turns out the former teacher was married to Fiszer, although auditors couldn't pinpoint when.
The audit also questioned $62,247 paid to a company called Burgundy Bunny. Auditors were unable to confirm the business even existed.
The report concluded that the problems were made possible because of a total lack of oversight by the school's board members. Fiszer could not be reached for comment and apparently has left the state, according to the Times.
This latest audit comes weeks after two other San Fernando Valley charter school operators were charged with stealing more than $200,000 in taxpayer funds.
In response to the latest report, LA schools Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines announced he would move to shut down NEW Academy Canoga Park. The school district also moved to change its rules on governing charters.
Vicky Waters, spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, applauded the district's efforts but stressed that all charters shouldn't be tarnished by the actions of a few.
CCSA learned about the report last week. We understand from LAUSD that the report outlines serious issues. We also recognize LAUSD’s appropriate oversight and thoroughness of their investigation. We encourage the school and authorities to take appropriate actions as a result of the report’s findings.
Although we are dismayed at the report's findings, we do not believe that these are indicative of broader issues within the charter movement. We do not want the actions of a few to taint the charter movement, which is comprised of thousands of honest, dedicated and hard-working teachers, parents, leaders, students all working toward better educational opportunities for children.
Currently, charters don't have to comply with laws governing access to records or public meetings. Nor do their boards have to be transparent about spending decisions or what role personal associations play in the awarding of contracts.
For years, advocates have unsuccesfully tried to change that. Stephanie Farland, policy analyst for the California School Boards Association, told California Watch in January that her organization has twice proposed legislation that would make charters abide by the same conflict-of-interest and transparency requirements of other taxpayer-supported schools. Each time, the bills were vetoed by the governor's office – once during the 2003-2004 session and again in the 2007-2008 session.
But neither one of those bills had the force of the Great Recession behind them. And as witnessed in the city of Bell, the public ire has become increasingly less tolerant of public officials using secrecy to abuse public funds.
In comes AB 572, sponsored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica. The bill would force charter school officials to disclose any conflicts and make their board meetings and minutes open to public scrutiny. The bill's analysis pulls no punches.
Recent news reports of charter school board members engaging in inappropriate financial mismanagement have highlighted the need for charter school conflict of interest laws to be clarified. While charter schools are given more autonomy than public schools, their governing boards have authority over public funds to be used for the educational benefit of their students.
Charter school governing boards should be held to the same standards as school district governing boards.
As of August 26, AB 572 passed both the state Assembly and Senate and is on its way to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk. Will LA's loss be transparency's gain?
smf NOTES: THE CALIFORNIA CHARTER SCHOOLS ASSOCIATION IS OPPOSED TO AB 572 AND ITS CALL FOR TRANSPERANCY IN SPENDING PUBLIC FUNDS –CCSA APPEARNTLY SUPPORTS THE STATUS QUO OF CLOSED MEETINGS , FISCAL SHENANIGANS AND ‘THE BROWN ACT BE DAMNED!’.
FROM THE CCSA CAPTOL ALERT (27 Aug):
“This week, AB 572 (Julia Brownley) and AB 2543 (Bonnie Lowenthal) passed the Legislature and were sent to the Governor for his signature or veto. CCSA is opposed to both bills. AB 572 applies draconian conflict of interest policies to charter schools, and AB 2543 applies an unworkable renewal timeline to all charter schools in California.”