By Mark Gutglueck
Despite Oxford Preparatory Academy’s reputation as one of the brightest stars in San Bernardino County’s academic constellation, the Chino Valley Unified School District’s board of trustees rejected the school’s application to continue operating under the district’s aegis beyond the 2016-17 school year.
Oxford Preparatory Academy’s apparent fall from grace comes more than three years after an academic test tainting scandal that, by differing explanations, may or may not have accounted for the school’s high ranking. It also marks a rupture in the previously close working relationship between district superintendent Wayne Joseph and the founder of Oxford, Sue Roche, whom Joseph previously held in high regard.
District officials and parents evinced a far stronger support for the charter school concept in general and the Oxford version of that concept some six years ago, when Joseph agreed to gamble over $3 million of the district’s revenue in having the district sponsor the establishment of Oxford Preparatory Academy. Initially, both the district and Oxford’s advocates considered housing the charter school at the former Los Serranos Elementary School site in Chino Hills, but eventually settled on converting El Rancho Elementary School, located at the corner of C Street and Oaks Avenue in Chino, into the Oxford grounds. The academy was to be devoted to innovative and specialized approaches to the education of students from kindergarten to the 8th grade. Joseph, backed by the district board of education, in 2010 consented to the arrangement by which Sue Roche was to serve as Oxford Preparatory Academy’s founding executive director. Roche had been the principal at Rhodes Elementary School, the highest-scoring school in the Chino Valley Unified School District. The school board approved that two-year charter application unanimously.
Enthusiasm for the Oxford undertaking was so high, that the number of student applicants to attend numbered over 600, well above the 350 student threshold needed to bring a charter school into existence. Even more significantly, Joseph had to take the extraordinary step of forging a memorandum of understanding between the district and Oxford Preparatory, preventing the academy from poaching the district’s highest performing teachers. That memorandum of understanding prohibited district teachers from taking a leave of absence from the district to teach at the charter school. The charter school was also tasked with the responsibility of providing special education services.
The gamble on Oxford Preparatory Academy appeared to have paid off, as students at the school performed spectacularly on academic achievement tests administered by the state. In 2011, students at Oxford Preparatory Academy collectively outperformed their counterparts at every other elementary and junior high school in San Bernardino County.
For three years running, Oxford had the highest score of any school in the county on California’s Standard Testing And Reporting exams, in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Known by the acronym STAR, the tests provide an academic performance rating or index, known as API, for second through 11th graders in every class, and at every school and district in the state. The tests measure students’ progress toward achieving California’s state-adopted academic content standards in English–language arts, mathematics, science, and history/social science. The results were used, until 2014, for student and school accountability purposes. Oxford had an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 958 in 2011 and improved to 972 in 2012.
In 2011, the school board unanimously extended Oxford’s charter for five years, from 2012-13 through 2016-17.
In the meantime, Roche expanded the Oxford model, convincing the Capistrano Unified School District to sponsor another campus, the Oxford Preparatory Academy in Mission Viejo. Roche transferred Jason Watts, who had been the principal at Oxford Preparatory Academy in Chino to Mission Viejo, where he served as the Mission Viejo’s inaugural principal/chancellor.
In the fall of 2012, controversy erupted, with reports of teacher and administrator orchestrated cheating on the state tests at the Oxford Preparatory Academy school in Mission Viejo, where, like in Chino, Roche was the executive director.
At the Mission Viejo campus, students rang up an impressive 993 academic performance score on the 1,000-point maximum index during the first year the school was open.
Capistrano District officials became suspicious and hired a private investigator, Nicole Miller, and an attorney, Dan Shinoff, to look into the possible inflation of the scores. Targeted in the investigation was Watts. As he had been principal of the Chino campus at the time of its impressive 2011 academic testing, aspersions were cast upon the Chino academy as well as Roche.
Allegations that surfaced in the course of Miller’s investigation were that Oxford professors who administered the tests erased incorrect student answers and filled in correct answers before the tests were scored, that the professors pointed to correct answers during testing, that before the tests were taken some of the parents of the school’s poorer performing students were contacted by school officials who asked those parents to have their children excused from taking the STAR test and that Roche engaged in “inappropriate coaching” of students prior to the test.
Some of the students reported that professors had filled in some of the “bubbles” on the answer sheet.
Oxford hired its own attorney, Hollis Peterson, to carry out an inquiry into the matter. Peterson in October 2012 delivered the results of what she said was “an impartial” investigation into the matter. “No credible evidence was found that testing procedures or test results at the Oxford Preparatory South Orange County Charter School were compromised during administration of the 2012 STAR test,” she stated.
In her report, Peterson said she interviewed Roche and Watts, as well as the Orange County charter campus’s former principal, six former teachers, ten current teachers and eight parents.
Peterson wrote in the report, “There is no credible evidence that the school had a practice of targeting low performing students and then encouraging or pressuring their parents to opt their children out of the STAR testing. Only one parent reported feeling being pressured by a teacher to opt her child out of testing.” Peterson further reported, “There is no evidence that Oxford Preparatory Academy teachers were walking around during STAR testing and pointing to correct answers on the test.”
And Peterson stated in the report, “There is no evidence that Oxford Preparatory Academy staff members erased incorrect student answers and filled in correct answers on the STAR test.” Rather, Peterson wrote that she had concluded “that the numerous and varied teaching strategies, test preparation techniques used at Oxford Preparatory Academy throughout the year, as well as the staff’s heavy focus on teaching standards have yielded atypical results.”
Oxford survived that challenge and the Capistrano Unified School District has continued to charter the academy. Oxford today operates or has in the works four schools: the Chino Valley campus at 5862 C Street in Chino; the Mission Viejo campus; another campus in Yorba Linda, which will open in Fall 2016; and a program of home-based independent study in San Diego County.
Oxford Preparatory Academy in Chino maintained its vaunted reputation in the Chino Valley district and San Bernardino County, with applicants to the school outnumbering space available there and students consistently scoring at the top or near the top on state-administered tests. In 2014 Oxford was among one of eleven schools in San Bernardino County and 424 public elementary schools statewide identified by California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as a California Distinguished School.
While there were less than 700 students enrolled at the Chino campus during its first year of operation, by last year there were 1.116 students attending there.
Nevertheless, the accolades, the increased enrollment, and student and parent enthusiasm proved insufficient in convincing Joseph to recommend to the school board that the district continue to charter the school.
Of special note was Joseph’s scathing references to Roche in his presentation of his recommendation orally delivered to the school board on March 17 in which he, essentially, indicted Roche for creating and then engaging in a financial conflict of interest which would have the effect, he implied, of shortchanging Oxford Preparatory’s students while enriching herself. Roche had recently withdrawn from the position of executive director of Oxford Preparatory’s corporate entity and promoted Barbara Black to that position, while assuming an undefined administrative role in the academy. According to Joseph, Roche had simultaneously created a for-profit entity, Edlighten Learning Solutions in which she is the central figure and prime mover, to exploit the non-profit Oxford Preparatory Academy and line her own pockets.
Roche had engaged in “arrogance, overreach and greed” in the administration of the academy which victimized Oxford’s students and parents, Joseph said, while employing “machinations” by which she fired dedicated educational professionals or otherwise advanced herself. Roche, the superintendent said, was cynically manipulating the academy’s reliance on consultants to cash in. One of those consultants is Edlighten Learning Solutions, a so-called “charter management organization” of which she is the chief executive officer.
Joseph said it was “alarming” that the Oxford board had hired Edlighten Learning Solutions to operate the academy as part of a contract which called for ten percent of Oxford’s revenues to be diverted to Edlighten for that service and that the lion’s share of a radical increase in consulting fees the academy was being budgeted to pay out over the next several years would likewise be steered to Edlighten.
Joseph marshaled documentation to prove his assertions, noting the academy had in its initial years spent roughly $90,000 a year for consultant services, but had increased outlays for consultants recently and was projecting over the next five years to lay out in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a year for consultants, among which Edlighten and Roche, as Edlighten’s president and CEO, would be the major beneficiaries.
Joseph’s oral presentation to the board and his recommendation for denying Oxford further chartering through the district, was backed by a 77-page report authored and compiled by Chino Valley Unified staff, which asserted misdirection, mismanagement and disorder in the way the Chino campus is run.
Joseph and the report lay out the charge that Roche, who through Edlighten has a financial interest in Oxford Preparatory Academy’s operations, is positioned to use Edlighten, which has what are defined by Oxford as “certain limited corporate rights” within the Oxford Preparatory Academy Corporation’s management structure, to influence Oxford Preparatory Academy’s board in a way that will benefit her. This is a conflict of interest, Joseph and the report maintain. According to the report, renewal of the charter would not be “not consistent with sound educational practice” because the application for renewal had not addressed eight of the requirements laid out in the state educational code with respect to licensing charter schools. Oxford was “demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the Oxford Preparatory Academy-Chino charter renewal petition,” the report stated.
“It is really with a heavy heart that I come to you tonight, board members, and ask you to approve my recommendation to deny Oxford Preparatory Academy’s current charter petition,” Joseph said. “This is a classic example in which a very, very successful charter school, somewhere along its journey, lost its way,” Joseph said. “I take no pride or comfort in the facts that I have brought to you tonight. It breaks my heart.”
The picture Joseph painted of Roche is very close to the unflattering portrait rendered by prosecutors of C. Steven Cox, the founder of the California Charter Academy.
Shortly after the California Charter Academy’s first campus was founded in 2000 under the auspices of the Snowline-Joint Unified School District, which exists in the High Desert communities of Phelan and Pinon Hills, Charles Steven Cox managed to expand the California Charter Academy in relatively short order into the largest charter school operator in California. He convinced Snowline to charter a second academy, then obtained two more charter sponsorships, one from the Orange School District in Orange County, and one from the Oro Grande School District, located in San Bernardino County’s High Desert.
Simultaneous to his founding of the non-profit California Charter Academy, Cox created Educational Administrative Services Corporation (EASC), a for-profit company which was then hired by all four charter schools to manage the day-to-day operations of the charter schools and provide academic supplies such as books, paper, pens, pencils, desks, chairs, projectors, computers, etc. The rates charged by EASC reflected in the billings were inflated. In some cases, educational materials that were paid for by the charter schools were never delivered. By 2003, teachers at several of the schools were going public with accounts of how students’ educations were being neglected and books and other educational materials were not being provided. In 2004, the superintendent of the California Department of Education, Jack O’Connell, launched an investigative audit into California Charter Academy, alleging financial irregularities. In August 2004, four years after California Charter Academy’s creation, it ceased operations abruptly, throwing teachers out of work and forcing students to hurriedly matriculate back into public schools.
On April 14, 2005, MGT of America, an auditing firm hired by the California Department of Education, and the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Team released their joint financial audit of California Charter Academy, showing $23 million in taxpayer money paid to the private management company Educational Administrative Services Corporation was misappropriated. Among the findings were that Cox had hired several of his family members into what were essentially do-nothing clerical and non-productive administrative positions, that Cox, his family members, other EASC and Charter Academy employees were provided with luxury automobiles, and that among the expenses accumulated by the Charter Academy were accommodations in Las Vegas, at Disneyland and the Disneyland Hotel, studio musical recording equipment, spa visits, fishing trips and jet skis. The audit alleged multiple conflict-of-interest violations, the improper conversion of private schools to public charter schools, and the falsification of documents and claims to receive public funds.
Ultimately, 147 yet outstanding criminal charges against Cox and his associate, Tad Honeycutt, were filed by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. That case has yet to go to trial.
Barbara Black, now Roche’s successor as the executive director for Oxford’s campuses in Mission Viejo and Chino, said the professional and consulting services Edlighten is to provide are a legitimate expenses consisting of eight percent of the academy’s total funding or roughly $1.5 million, and will ultimately further the educational process at Oxford, either directly providing or facilitating consultant work, promotion and advertising, auditing, information technology applications, legal fees, recruiting and architectural services.
Oxford attorney Greta Proctor said Joseph’s recommendation and its accompanying report involved wrong, inaccurate or incomplete information.
She responded to the suggestion that there was something improper with regard to Roche’s role as consultant performing work under contract to the academy. “Edlighten does not run Oxford; it is a contractor performing services,” she asserted. She told the board that it was treading on risky ground by denying the academy the charter extension. “There is no legal basis for denial of this charter tonight,” Proctor said.
The board, however, found Proctor’s legalistic assertions not only unconvincing but part of the justification for terminating the district’s affiliation with the academy. Its members voted 5-0 not to extend the charter.
The Sentinel has learned that Oxford will appeal to the San Bernardino County Board of Education, asking that it consent to being the chartering agency for the academy from 2017-18 2021-22.
In anticipation of the case Oxford will need to make before the San Bernardino County Board of Education to maintain its presence in San Bernardino County, Oxford has formulated a response to Joseph’s charges of fiscal improprieties, which states, “Oxford Preparatory Academy’s fiscal policy complies with generally accepted standards of fiscal management and generally accepted accounting principals. Oxford Preparatory Academy maintains a separate chart of accounts and general ledger (separate books) for each charter school, as required by law. Each charter school is reported and reconciled monthly as a stand-alone organization.”
The response continues, “Revenue and expenses are properly tracked by Oxford Preparatory Academy. This includes payroll and benefit expenses, which are booked according to the ‘home’ school of the employee. For employees that are ‘shared’, their salary and benefits are split amongst the charter school served. The ‘sharing’ of personnel resources is similar to the school district model; teachers are employed wholly by their school, while each school is able to benefit from the expertise administrative and executive staff they otherwise might not be able to afford. This has proven to be invaluable to each of our charter schools. Contrary to what the [district] report states, Oxford Preparatory Academy does report information on each charter school separately to the Chino Valley Unified School District board. As per the terms of the fiscal memorandum of understanding), the district is also provided with a copy of consolidated budgets for Oxford Preparatory Academy. In the last five years of operations, Oxford Preparatory Academy has received ‘clean’ audits – meaning no findings or concerns have been cited.”
With regard to academic performance and Oxford’s failure to recruit students within the Chino district who are in need of the services Oxford provides, the response states, “As stated on pages 168-169 of the charter renewal petition, ‘Oxford Preparatory Academy shall make it a priority to recruit a diverse student population including low-income and academically low achieving students, reflective of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds of those residing in the district.’ This successful targeted recruiting effort is verified through our 16.4% increase in the student populations of socioeconomically disadvantaged students and the 8.8% increase in population of enrolled Hispanic or Latino students since our school opened. These increases confirm that we not only know who are[sic] target students are, Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley has a comprehensive and successful targeted recruitment program. The success of our recruitment efforts is especially significant since our school has a waitlist and is required to use a random public lottery process.”
As to the charge that Roche has involved herself in a financial conflict of interest through her profiteering scheme involving Edlighten Learning Solutions, Oxford Preparatory Academy’s response maintains this “reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of California law that governs nonprofits, and misstates the law that clearly defines and limits what ‘sole statutory membership’ means. As expressly allowed by Education Code section 47604, Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley is operated by a nonprofit public benefit corporation (Oxford Preparatory Academy). Edlighten is a separate corporation that does not “control the governance of the Oxford Preparatory Academy non-profit corporation” and does not control the Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley charter school.”
Oxford Preparatory Academy’s response continues, “As background, Edlighten was formed in 2012 to help develop and protect the Oxford Preparatory Academy educational model (such as trademark the “Oxford Preparatory Academy” name and protect its intellectual property) and support Oxford Preparatory Academy schools. Edlighten’s relationship with Oxford Preparatory Academy is strictly limited to what is described by Corporations Code section 5056—no more and no less. The rights of Edlighten as sole statutory member are solely: 1) the right to approve Oxford Preparatory Academy’s directors, which are elected by the Oxford Preparatory Academy Board; 2) the right to approve a decision by the Oxford Preparatory Academy board to dispose of all or substantially all of its assets; and 3) the right to approve a decision by the Oxford Preparatory Academy board to merge or dissolve Oxford Preparatory Academy. (Corp. Code, § 5056(a).)”
The response goes on, “These provisions are properly reflected in the bylaws provided to the district. These provisions give Edlighten certain limited corporate rights as to the Oxford Preparatory Academy Corporation, but they do not give Edlighten any rights in the Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley School nor any rights under the charter. When the agreements between Oxford Preparatory Academy and Edlighten were adopted and each time they have been amended, presentations and documents were provided at Oxford Preparatory Academy’s public meetings, to ensure transparency.”
Oxford Preparatory Academy’s response, without directly mentioning Roche, disputes the district’s charge that she is able to exert control over the Oxford Preparatory Academy board.
“The report claims the sole statutory membership entitles Edlighten to a ‘vote’ at Oxford Preparatory Academy’s board meetings,” the response states. “ This is incorrect. Under Corporations Code section 5056, Edlighten’s board may stop Oxford Preparatory Academy from adding or removing an Oxford Preparatory Academy board member (Edlighten has never done so, and Oxford Preparatory Academy board members are elected by the Oxford Preparatory Academy board), but Oxford Preparatory Academy is nonetheless required to have the board composition required by its charter. Edlighten has no control whatsoever over how Oxford Preparatory Academy board members vote or how Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley is run. In fact, Oxford Preparatory Academy could choose to close Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley without any approval from Edlighten. Only Oxford Preparatory Academy Board members may vote on Oxford Preparatory Academy business. Likewise, as the “member” Edlighten has the right to stop the transaction in the unlikely event Oxford Preparatory Academy wanted to transfer substantially all of the Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley assets at once, but Edlighten cannot vote, direct, or deliberate on Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley’s school budgets or how Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley spends money. Those issues are all properly, and by law, within the purview of the Oxford Preparatory Academy board of directors. The report claims that by having a sole statutory member, Oxford Preparatory Academy relinquished its control of the school. That is simply untrue. It is very important to understand that even though Oxford Preparatory Academy and Edlighten are affiliated, that does not mean Edlighten can manage or control Oxford Preparatory Academy Chino Valley or Oxford Preparatory Academy itself. It cannot.”
By Mark Gutglueck