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Head of troubled charter school company resigns

Mike Piscal, 44, who founded and ran ICEF Public Schools, steps down amid an ongoing financial crisis that will result in slashing the organization's payroll by about 25%.

October 09, 2010|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

The founder of a troubled charter school company, one of the nation's largest, has resigned amid an ongoing financial crisis that will result in slashing the organization's payroll by about 25%.

The departure of Mike Piscal, 44, who started and ran ICEF Public Schools, was confirmed Thursday night at a meeting with more than 1,000 parents and staff. The austerity measures, which will include midyear layoffs of an undetermined number of teachers, are both fiscally necessary and required by benefactors who stepped forward last week to pledge help, said interim chief executive Caprice Young.

ICEF, which serves about 4,500 students, also wants help for its 15 campuses from the Los Angeles Unified School District, Young said. ICEF is seeking space at district schools to reduce leasing costs and wants the district's assistance in obtaining short-term loans at low interest.

Young, a former Los Angeles Board of Education president, was scheduled to meet Friday with L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.

"These are very preliminary discussions," said district spokesman Robert Alaniz.

School board member Steve Zimmer said he had high regard for Young, but added he won't pledge financial assistance until ICEF serves more disabled students and English learners. Charter schools frequently are criticized for enrolling low numbers of those students.

In 1994, seeking to work with low-income minority students, Piscal left his job as an English teacher at the prestigious private school Harvard-Westlake. Two years later, he had pulled together a modest after-school program with seven students.

But then his operation took off, especially in heavily African American neighborhoods, which embraced the white New Jersey transplant as offering something superior to L.A. Unified. Two of Piscal's 15 schools now have a majority Latino enrollment, but the overall enrollment remains overwhelming African American. L.A. Unified, in contrast, is 73% Latino.

In an interview, Piscal said he decided to take a break from a nonstop role that has taken a personal toll.

"This will give me time to lose 40 pounds and find a Mrs. Piscal," he said. "I made promises to people in the community that I would get their kids into college. I'm always going to be available for anything they need me to do, but it's time for me to step back."

Local philanthropists, including former Mayor Richard Riordan and billionaire Eli Broad, offered financial support to the ICEF schools last week; Broad donated $500,000 and Riordan $100,000. Both are longtime supporters of charter schools, which are independently run and publicly financed.

At that time, the board brought in Young, and Riordan agreed to head the board of directors. Piscal initially accepted a lesser role heading instructional programs. ICEF's financial problems stemmed in large measure from a rapid expansion that incurred debt amid diminished state funding and philanthropy.

Cynthia Garrett was among the parents at this week's meeting who wanted to know if ICEF's rich extracurricular programs in sports and music would be maintained. Her son has played rugby abroad through ICEF, she said.

At that point, Riordan noted that he'd been an All-American rugby player in college.

"I'll make these kids run like hell," he said, signaling that rugby would continue.

Many parents expressed their gratitude for ICEF programs but are also worried about large class sizes that are likely to increase further. And one parent said ICEF's internal operations have been too secretive. In interviews, employees have talked about supply shortages and being expected to work extra hours without compensation.

Young promised transparency and offered reassurances.

"We are going to make sure we stay true to the secret sauce of ICEF, which is a balanced program" of academics and extracurricular opportunities, she said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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