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Charter School's Funding in Peril

Education: Antelope Valley campus fails to meet teacher salary guidelines, might have overstated attendance.


A charter school in the Antelope Valley may have its public funding revoked today by a school district that suspects it has been overstating its attendance and receiving state funding it doesn't deserve.

Antelope Valley Union High School District Supt. Robert Girolamo is recommending that the school board refuse to renew the charter of year-old Desert Sands Charter School at tonight's board meeting. Desert Sands is a for-profit school that specializes in home-study programs for students who have struggled in traditional classroom settings.

In addition to attendance concerns, the district staff believes the school hired inexperienced employees, misused education funds on lawsuits, and generally offered "an unsound educational program," according to Christopher Keeler, the school district's lawyer.

Michael Finley, Desert Sands' lawyer, said the school, which has campuses in Lancaster and Palmdale, has succeeded in its goal of serving at-risk students. "Teachers and parents are thrilled with the program," he said.

The district's recommendation comes amid growing concerns that the state lacks sufficient oversight over charter schools that use taxpayer money for home-study programs. Legislators worry that too little money is being spent on instruction at some of these schools, which, like all charters, are allowed to operate as for-profit businesses under California law.

In March, state education officials acting on a new state law slashed the funding for independent-study charter schools if they didn't spend at least half their public revenue on certified teacher salaries.

More than 50 of the state's 118 independent-study schools had their funding cut by 5% this year.

In two years, cuts could be as much as 30%, said Jan Sterling, state director of school fiscal services.

Desert Sands, which spent 35% of its public funds on certified teachers, was among the schools whose funding was cut, Sterling said.

The district also has recommended that the school board approve an independent auditor to review the school's reported average daily attendance figures, which are used to calculate the amount of money that schools receive from the state. The school's midyear report already has been decertified by the district and the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Larry Freise, district attendance coordinator, said the school may have overstated its claim that it had an average daily attendance of 302 students at midyear. Based on those numbers, the state agreed to pay the school about $1.6 million--about $5,300 per student--during the school year, Freise said.

Freise could not say how much the district believed the school inflated its attendance, nor how much of the $1.6 million has already been paid. The school has since grown to about 1,000 students, Finley said.

Finley believes the attendance issue arose over questions about a handful of student records. Another Desert Sands attorney, Lisa Corr, said the school welcomed the audit.

The district will present its findings at tonight's meeting.

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