Superintendent’s Explanation Of Academy’s Demise Angers Parents

Chino Valley Unified School District Superintendent Wayne Joseph ran into a buzz saw of disbelief, denial and anger this week during a forum at the Chino Hills High School Auditorium in which he sought to explain to parents of students currently attending Oxford Preparatory Academy why the district is no longer sponsoring that charter school.
Oxford was founded by Sue Roche in 2010, the principal at Rhodes Elementary School, the highest-performing school in the Chino Valley Unified School District in the early 2000s. With Joseph’s backing, the school district’s board of trustees gambled more than $3 million in opening Oxford Academy at the shuttered El Rancho Elementary School, located at the corner of C Street and Oaks Avenue in Chino. Utilizing Roche’s formula of a rich curriculum, old-fashioned book learning, intensified classroom focus and heavy doses of parental involvement, Oxford exceeded all 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 and did so again on California’s Standard Testing And Reporting (STAR) exams in 2012 and 2013, finishing near the top in 2014, and again besting all others in 2015.
The Oxford undertaking had proved so successful 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. In 2011, the school board unanimously extended Oxford’s charter for five years, from 2012-13 through 2016-17. To accommodate the overwhelming uptick in applicants, the district increased enrollment there to the point that at present it stands at more than 1,100 students.
For Roche, however, the accolades for her teaching method, the achievement of the Oxford students and her lionization as an educator did not translate to a sufficient financial reward, even after she was permitted to expand the Oxford model, convincing the Capistrano Unified School District to sponsor another campus, the Oxford Preparatory Academy in Mission Viejo, where in its first year of operation students at the Mission Viejo campus rang up an impressive 993 academic performance score on the 1,000-point maximum index during the first year the school was open.
Dissatisfied with the monetary remuneration she received as the top administrator at Oxford, Roche withdrew from the position of executive director of Oxford Preparatory’s corporate entity and promoted Barbara Black to that position. Roche then created 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, serve as a district vendor and 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. Perceiving that Roche was seeking to financially exploit the non-profit Oxford Preparatory Academy, Joseph publicly accused Roche of engaging in a financial conflict of interest which would have the effect, he implied, of shortchanging Oxford Preparatory’s students while enriching herself. Upon Joseph’s recommendation, the school board declined to renew Oxford’s charter.
Oxford’s internal board initially disputed any and all accusations of wrongdoing but then ended its relationship with Roche and appealed the school board’s decision to the county school board, which declined to consider the appeal because the district had altered its original submission by ending Roche’s involvement. Oxford then sought the intercession of the state, but San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre beat them to the punch, calling for the California Department of Education to do an audit. The Fiscal Crisis & Management Team, an adjunct to the department, carried out that audit. Last month, just as Oxford’s request for a reconsideration of its charter renewal was about to be heard by the Chino Valley Unified School District Board, the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team released that audit and its accompanying report. The conclusion of said report spelled out 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, including her husband Terry Roche, married daughter Rebecca Baty, son Brian Roche and cousin Nick Califato, all of whom were paid through the organization.
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.
“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. Prior to the early termination of the contract this year, Edlighten received pre-curtailment payments of just $834,522 in less than four months of 2016.
On November 28, the district board of trustees, again at Joseph’s urging, rejected the charter renewal petition.
On December 20, a number of parents of children attending Oxford showed up to hear Joseph’s explanation of why their children will not be able to attend the school where over the last several years they have achieved such stellar academic success and why they must be recirculated back into district schools where students’ scholastic performance has been far more lackluster.
Few parents seemed interested in or inclined to believe Joseph’s explanation that it was the action of Roche, whose educational formula had led to their childrens’ scholastic enrichment and academic achievement, that necessitated the district’s action in dechartering the school. To the extent that they would permit focus on Roche, some seemed less than convinced that her action was a serious matter and none appeared prepared to accept that her action, no matter how egregious, justified the closure of the academy.
Joseph attempted to drive home his point with a synopsis of the audit’s conclusion, and then used some harsher language of his own to explain the implication of what had occurred by telling the parents Roche had “laundered” public money and that Roche had consigned the money needed to keep the school alive to “a runaway train.” Somewhat apologetically but yet forcefully, Joseph intoned, “The past is gone,” sounding the death knell of Oxford Charter Academy.
That assertion very nearly subjected the superintendent to mayhem. His focus was on the wrong thing, parents insisted. He should be committed to keeping the academy up and running, they fairly shouted. Instead, they said, he was intent on destroying it and running it into the ground. Some echoed one another – and Roche’s attorney Marc Greenberg – by asserting that Roche had radically outperformed Joseph, as the schools he oversees were badly outperformed by the school Roche led.
“You’re not doing anything to help us,” one woman wailed.
Soberly, Joseph responded, “You need to know the truth. I’m trying to tell you what has happened and is going to happen and why.”
Many parents of Oxford students have yet to accept that their children will need to pull out of the school. Just under 400 have at this point bowed to reality and are seeking transfers to specific schools in the district. The parents of roughly 700 students are staking their hopes on some sort of miracle.
Something close to a miracle – or at least an unlikely reverse – will be needed. Oxford’s internal school board on December 7 voted to appeal the Chino Valley Unified School District’s November 28 renewal of its charter to the San Bernardino County school board, which declined to take up a previous appeal on the matter, and instead elicited County Schools Superintendent Alejandre’s interest and resulted in the audit so unfavorable to Roche and by extension the academy. The academy is preparing that appeal to get it before the county school board by the first week of January. If that body rejects it, Oxford could then take the matter up with the state school board, hoping, that despite the audit which excoriated Oxford’s founder, state officials will be impressed enough with Oxford’s performance to keep it alive.

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