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What Is This Charter School Hiding?

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"ECRCHS has determined that your request seeks records that are privileged and protected, and thus not subject to disclosure. "

- Daniel H. Chang, Chief Compliance Officer

It has been three years since El Camino Real Charter High School's (ECRCHS) former Principal, David Fehte, was forced from his position and given $215,000 in taxpayer funds as a golden parachute . A year earlier, the Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) Charter School Division (CSD) had issued a "Notice to Cure" to the school noting, in part, that "there were charges on the [school's] credit card statements where it was indicated as 'personal use' which is inappropriate and does not align to the purpose for use of the public credit card. " A followup by the Los Angeles Daily News found that "over the two years, Fehte charged more than $100,000 to the card ", including "$15,500 at Monty's " Prime Steaks & Seafood and "first-class airfare and luxury hotel rooms ". This included an $885.96 payment for an itinerary made out to "Mr. David Patrick Fehte/San Antonio Spurs " so that Fehte could perform scouting activities for the NBA team .

In the wake of the Daily News reports and a threat by the LAUSD to revoke ECRCHS' charter, the school's governing board voted "to approve contracting with Oracle [Investigations Group, Inc.] to investigate issues on LAUSD's Notice to Cure and the credit card statements. " While the Daily News investigation uncovered a detailed accounting of the funds that were improperly spent, they could not determine the flaws in oversight that allowed this to happen without the cooperation of the school's governing board. This Oracle investigation, which cost the taxpayers an estimated $20,000 , was important because it detailed exactly how the misuse of public funds was allowed to occur. This would ensure that fiscal responsibility could be tightened not only at ECRCHS, but at all charter schools operating within the LAUSD.

Unfortunately, the administration at El Camino is not willing to let the public see the report that was paid for with taxpayer funds.

Since July 25, 2019, I have been attempting to use the California Public Records Act to secure "the report generated by Oracle Investigations Group as a result of the contract approved by the Governing Board on June 22, 2016." However, despite the fact that the agenda item voted on by the governing board states that they were to "Review and Vote Contract for an Outside Investigator ", the school now claims "that Oracle Investigations Group ("Oracle") was retained by ECRCHS's outside legal counsel, Young, Minney & Corr, LLP ("YM&C"), as part of its representation of ECRCHS. " Since they claim that "all information related to the results of Oracle's investigation, including any written report related to same, was obtained by [their] attorneys " this information is "privileged and protected, and thus not subject to disclosure. " In fact, they even claim that the contract itself is "privileged and protected " despite the fact that its approval was voted on in an open session.

The facts surrounding the procurement of the Oracle contract do not support the claim that the school's lawyers are the ones who pursued this contract. First, an email dated May 2, 2016, from Oracle to Jon Wasser, the chair of the governing board, thanks him "for the call today regarding the current investigative needs of El Camino Real Charter High School (ECRCHS). " The minutes of the meeting clearly state that the motion made was "to approve contracting with Oracle ," a fact that is backed up by the Daily News article covering the proceedings which is headlined "El Camino Real hires investigator to probe principal's lavish credit card use ".

The school says that the audio recording of the meeting backs up the case that the governing board was voting on having their lawyers hire the investigation firm, but instead it shows that the minutes were correct. The motion that was made and seconded specifically states that the governing board is approving the contract. Before the vote is taken, someone does mention that a suggestion had been previously made (possibly in violation of the Brown Act if this suggestion was made outside the confines of an agendized meeting) that the law firm should sign the contract, but this was neither discussed or offered as an amendment. Therefore, the original wording of the resolution stands.

Regardless of who signed the contract, ECRCHS is not telling the truth when it states that it is "unable to provide any documents or information related to [my] Public Records Act request." While the "Government Code § 6254 (the Public Records Act specifically exempts from disclosure 'records, the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law, including, but not limited to, the provisions of the Evidence Code relating to privilege') and Evidence Code § 954 ('the client, whether or not a party, has a privilege to refuse to disclose, and to prevent another from disclosing, a confidential communication between client and lawyer') ", this only gives El Camino the ability to not release these records. However, they are free to waive this privilege and share the records with the public. They choose not to do so.

It is clear that El Camino does not want the public to see the results of Oracle's investigation. This leaves open the question of what they are hiding. Was the fraud much greater than what was found by the LAUSD or the Daily News? Was Fehte not the only member of the administration feeding from the public trough? Was the governing board negligent in not providing proper oversight of their employees? Should the case have been referred for criminal prosecution? As both the funders of the investigation and the victims of any wrongdoing, the public has a right to know.

El Camino's Governing Board meets during the scandal
El Camino's Governing Board meets during the scandal
(Image by Carl J Petersen)
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Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, he was endorsed by the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a "strong supporter of public schools." His past blogs can be found at www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com . Opinions are his own.

 

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Carl Petersen is a father of five, including two daughters who are on the autism spectrum. His involvement in education issues began when the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) refused to provide services that his daughters' teachers (more...)
 

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