CVUSD Pulls Final Plug On Oxford Preparatory Academy Charter Reapplication

Oxford Preparatory Academy’s epic free-fall has continued, as the school that stood at the forefront of academic achievement in San Bernardino County just a year ago has lost its original sponsor and is now in danger of losing its educational franchise along with its hold on existence altogether.
On November 28, the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees for the second time in less than eight months declined to renew the 6-year-old school’s charter, which is set to expire June 30, 2017.
A key blow to the institution, which had grown to become seen as a feather in the cap of the entire Chino Valley community, came when two of the board members whom Oxford’s supporters had come to rely upon for understanding and sympathy defected to the side inveighing against the school and its management.
The demise of the Oxford Preparatory Academy and its founder was a rapid and precipitous one, mirroring their equally meteoric rise.
Sue Roche had been the principal at Rhodes Elementary School, the highest-performing school in the Chino Valley Unified School District in the early 2000s. With the support of Chino Valley Unified School District Superintendent Wayne Joseph, the district board in 2010 agreed to gamble over $3 million of the district’s revenue in having the district sponsor the establishment of Oxford Preparatory Academy, Roche’s brainchild, with Roche at the helm. 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, using an even more intensified application of Roche’s already proven formula that relied on heavy parental involvement and steady doses of academic focus in the classroom.
That move exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations. Students at Oxford Preparatory Academy performed spectacularly on academic achievement tests administered by the state and in 2011 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 measured 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.
Enthusiasm for the Oxford undertaking was so high that the number of student applicants to attend the school routinely outran the number of desks and classroom space for them by as much as 600 per year, requiring that the district hold a lottery as a means of granting admission to it. 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.
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.
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.
A year ago, it would have appeared unthinkable that the Chino Valley Unified School District would not renew the academy’s charter for 2017-18 and the four school years beyond that when the date to do so in March was approaching. Yet the school board did just that.
Roche, who for years had garnered kudos and accolades for her formula without achieving a commensurate financial reward, at some point resolved to cash in. She withdrew 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 that would in time come to be occupied not by herself but a for-profit entity, Edlighten Learning Solutions, in which she is the central figure and prime mover.
Upon Roche’s direction, Black had Oxford Charter Academy enter into a contractual arrangement that would have paid Edlighten $5.3 million to, essentially, employ Roche as the school’s contract administrator and operations director.
With the date for the school board’s determination with regard to renewing Oxford’s charter approaching last spring, Joseph learned of what Roche had done. Roche was, Joseph became convinced, seeking to financially exploit the non-profit Oxford Preparatory Academy. He publicly accused Roche of 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 engaged in “arrogance, overreach and greed” in the administration of the academy which victimized Oxford’s students and parents, Joseph told the school board, 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 line her pockets. In compliance with Joseph’s recommendation, the school board declined to renew Oxford’s charter.
Initially, Oxford’s internal board asserted the school district’s action was unjustified but then regrouped and terminated its relationship with Roche and Edlighten in May. It then appealed the district’s decision to the county school board, but that body declined to take any action, maintaining that by changing its management structure, the proposal that Chino Unified had rejected no longer existed. Oxford then turned to the State Department of Education, seeking to get a charter from it. In the meantime, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre made his request for an audit.
In the intervening period, Oxford’s internal board and management came back to the Chino Valley Unified School District, hat in hand, and asked the board to reconsider the application for the renewal of its original charter along with a request to expand itself into a second campus on the site of the former Los Serranos Elementary.
But the fates appear to have been against Oxford. As the school board was about to take up that request, the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team, an adjunct to the California Department of Education, delivered the 45-page audit summary and report it had undertaken at Alejandre’s behest last week, highlighting the conclusion that Roche’s action may have crossed the line into criminality. The audit cataloged how Roche created a system that involved Yorba Linda-based Edlighten and another entity, the Nevada corporation Educational Excellence, in dodging accountability through what was characterized as a “daisy chain” of payments between for-profit companies which employed her family, friends and associates. Roche purposefully hid or obscured financial transactions and operations in such a way that the auditors, not to mention Chino Valley Unified officials and even Oxford’s own in-house employees could not easily track them, according to the audit report. Ultimately, public school funding was diverted to bank accounts controlled by Roche and her associates, according to the audit. Oxford Preparatory, Edlighten and Educational Excellence employed several of Roche’s relatives, including her husband Terry, daughter Rebecca Baty, son Brian Roche and cousin Nick Califato, all of whom were paid through the organization
“Interviews indicate that following the petition renewal in 2012, the founder created a complex structure of charter management corporations that exercised significant influence over transactions and contracts between these entities, and secured considerable financial benefit through contracts that charged management service fees up to 10 percent, funneling charter school dollars from Oxford Preparatory Academy schools,” the audit report states, such that Oxford was charged “for services that already existed.”
Oxford Preparatory paid Edlighten $4.2 million in management fees between January 2013 and June 2016, according to the audit. Those numbers were steadily growing, from $821,490 in 2013, $1.2 million in 2014 and $1.3 million in 2015. Edlighten was on track to take in more than $2 million from the academy in 2016, when Edlighten’s contract with Oxford was terminated in May. Because of that, Edlighten received payments of just $834,522 in 2016.
Roche’s actions were both deliberate and calculated, the auditors opined, and they said there was “sufficient evidence that affiliated and/or related party organizations were intentionally created to divert and launder funds from Oxford Preparatory Academy.”
The auditors called upon Alejandre to inform “the governing board of Oxford Preparatory Academy charter school, the governing board of the Chino Valley Unified School District, the State Controller, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the local district attorney that fraud, misappropriation of assets or other illegal activities may have occurred.”
The timing for Oxford was execrable. Oxford supporters said that they had buttonholed board president Andrew Cruz and board members James Na and Sylvia Orozco to explain to them that despite whatever transgressions Roche had engaged in, the school yet stands as an exemplary educational venue and that the students there were achieving academic success and seeing a benefit far in excess of the cost the district was bearing in keeping the campus open. They said they were relatively confident Cruz and Na had made a “moral commitment” to at least keep the existing campus up and running, and that Orozco was leaning in their direction. They said they were cautiously optimistic the board would also support the opening of the second campus.
All that was dashed in the wake of the audit release and recommendations against renewing the charter made by superintendent Joseph. Joseph accused elements connected with Oxford of having whipped the parents of Oxford students into a lather against him, the district and the board by misdirecting the responsibility for what has happened with the academy. “Oxford has only Oxford to blame,” Joseph said. “Their wounds are self-inflicted.” He said the suggestions that he was purposefully destroying the academy was a fabrication by arrogant administrators at Oxford, who had failed to come to terms with the gross wrongdoing at the original campus and then engaged in the “height of hubris” by pushing forward with a proposal to open a second campus before the audit was complete.
The board voted unanimously to deny the charter renewal, as well as against allowing the expansion to the Los Serranos campus.
Marc Greenberg, Sue Roche’s attorney, told the Sentinel the audit and its report were flawed by the assumption that Roche’s independent companies were not permitted to provide services to the academy. Greenberg said that neither Edlighten nor Educational Excellence were affiliated with the Oxford board and were thus legally permitted to have a contractual relationship to the academy under its charter.
Greenberg said that Joseph had cooked up the charges of misfeasance and malfeasance against Roche out of discomfiture and embarrassment over the entity she had created and supervised – Oxford – having consistently outperformed the schools under Joseph’s direct supervision.

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