Three charter schools that the L.A. Unified School District had voted to shut down over concerns of financial mismanagement will remain open. The reprieve was granted last week by the Los Angeles County Board of Education.
The LAUSD had voted 6-to-0 to deny the renewals of three Magnolia Public School charters in October, citing poor fiscal oversight and failure to provide requested documents in a timely manner. The county board reversed the decision on Dec. 22.
Magnolia, which operates charter schools on 10 campuses in California, including eight in L.A., was the subject of an L.A. Weekly cover story in December about its alleged ties to Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric whom some believe to be responsible for a failed coup attempt in Turkey.
Magnolia has been investigated for financial mismanagement three times in as many years, by the LAUSD, the California State Auditor and the California Education Department. Charters are managed independently, but they must undergo a review every five years by an authorizer, which in most instances is the local school district but in some cases can be the county or the state.
The schools initially denied for renewal were Magnolia Science Academy 1 in Reseda, Magnolia Science Academy 2 in Van Nuys and Magnolia Science Academy 3 in Carson. Collectively, they enroll about 1,400 students from sixth to 12th grade.
Magnolia appealed the denials to the County Board of Education, which voted 4-to-1 in favor of overruling LAUSD on Dec. 22. The County Board of Education’s Dec. 22 decision renews the three Magnolia charters through the 2021-22 school year.
In approving the charter renewals, the board overruled the recommendation of its own staff, which was concerned about past fiscal practices and a lack of required financial information on the charter petition.
Among other issues, the staff found that enrollment was down at all three of the schools, that the schools’ advertised focus on science, technology and math is not reflected in current course offerings, and that board meetings often are carried out via teleconferencing, which restricts opportunities for public comment.
Board president Douglas Boyd credited Magnolia CEO Caprice Young during last week’s hearing for turning around what he called Magnolia's “serious fiscal problems” since she became CEO in January 2015. Boyd also praised the school’s academic performance, which the staff report acknowledged met or exceeded that of public schools in the district in which the charters are located.
Young had expressed optimism to L.A. Weekly when asked in November about the potential outcome of appeal. “The county and state tend to look at charter renewals with more objectivity and more consistency with the law,” Young said.
But county schools superintendent Debra Duardo told L.A. Weekly on Wednesday that her staff findings echoed LAUSD’s concerns about Magnolia’s history of poor fiscal practices and of failing to respond in a timely manner to requests from auditors and investigators. “It really appeared that they had a consistent pattern of failing to establish adequate fiscal and operational control,” Duardo says.
José Cole-Gutiérrez, director of the charter schools division for LAUSD, appeared before the board members at the hearing to speak in support of denial, saying of Magnolia, “You cannot oversee what you can’t see.”
The Turkish government claims that Magnolia and other U.S.-based charters founded by Turkish men with ties to Gülen funneled money to finance the coup attempt. Young denies that Magnolia has any affiliation with Gülen or the Gülen movement. Gülen denies that he was behind the coup attempt in Turkey this past summer.
The question of the Turkish connection did not arise in either the LAUSD’s decision to deny the charters or in the county board’s decision to renew them.