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State Seeks Charter School Operator's Records Amid Inquiry

Officials secure student data as California Charter Academy closes S.B. County campuses and faces conflict-of- interest allegations.

August 06, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Education officials investigating California's largest charter-school operator subpoenaed the nonprofit organization's academic and financial records Thursday.

State Supt. for Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said investigators are seeking all records from the California Charter Academy to ensure that paperwork does not get lost as the organization closes campuses amid the inquiry and changes in charter-school law.

"I am most concerned that student records be maintained so that students may transition smoothly to other schools," O'Connell said.

"Given my department's ongoing investigation and the uncertain future of this organization, it is vitally important that records be maintained and made available to our auditors."

Last year, the California Charter Academy was the state's largest charter-school operator, educating at least 7,000 students at more than 50 campuses throughout the state. It operated the schools under four charter agreements with three school districts.

Charter schools sometimes use innovative teaching methods and are largely independent but must operate under charters issued by school districts, which are financially liable for them.

In recent weeks, academy officials announced plans to close 38 schools this fall -- in part because of changes in charter-school regulations that cut off funding for education of adults. Many of the academy's schools cater to such students.

The organization also is under pressure from state education officials and other charter schools over alleged conflicts of interest and for opening schools far away from school districts that sponsor them.

O'Connell's investigation focuses, in part, on a possible conflict of interest in the academy's leadership.

Until this week, the group's founder, C. Steven Cox, served as a board member of the nonprofit while also running a for-profit company that managed all the school sites.

Mike Davis, an academy official, said that Cox is no longer affiliated with the academy and that all contracts with the company had been severed.

Charter schools have been free to open campuses outside the sponsoring school district until this year, when a new state law banned the practice. Charter schools must obtain charters from the districts in which their schools are located once their current charters expire.

Most of California Charter Academy's schools were far from the sponsoring school districts, which receive a portion of state funding for agreeing to oversee the schools.

In March, O'Connell launched the investigation. A state charter school advisory panel had alleged that the organization was charging some of its campuses millions of dollars in administrative fees and was inadequately overseeing the schools.

In response to the investigation and new charter school laws, the academy surrendered two of its four charters, effectively closing 17 schools. Board members voted Wednesday to significantly scale back the number of schools run under its two remaining charters, state and academy officials said.

For one charter with the Snowline Joint Unified School District in San Bernardino County, board members decided to close five of 12 schools. Davis said that about half of the charter's 2,440 students would be forced to find other schools to attend.

Board members for the other charter, granted by Ore Grand School District -- also in San Bernardino County -- will not open 16 of 24 schools. Davis said about 1,300 students would have to enroll elsewhere.

Davis declined to specify which schools would close until state officials review the academy's financial plans for the remaining schools and decide whether to provide state funding for them.

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