Faintest Gleam Of Hope That Oxford Prep To Be Granted Rechartering

With all four walls closing in on Oxford Preparatory Academy, there was this week a slight glimmer of hope for the embattled charter school, the first turnaround in a consistent succession of blows the institution has sustained for more than a year. This week, the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools in Sacramento considered providing a positive recommendation to the California Department of Education with regard to Oxford’s final chartering extension request, which is due to be considered in May. After a hearing in which advocates for the charter school spoke in support of extending the charter and others, including representatives of the Chino Valley Unified School District, spoke in opposition to extending the charter, the commission voted 4 to 3 in favor of making the chartering extension. According to the commission’s bylaws, however, such a recommendation cannot be made on a simple 4-3 majority vote, but must be done by a 5 to 2 margin or greater.
Nevertheless, the record of the discussion of the commission and majority vote will be provided to the Department of Education.
Breathing space for the once-vaunted charter school has long been in short supply. Oxford Preparatory Academy soared into the academic stratosphere earlier this decade, utilizing the educational formula of its founder, Sue Roche, who had been afforded the trust of the Chino Valley Unified School District with the school board’s unanimous January 2010 approval of Oxford’s charter to operate in Chino for a two-year term from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2012. Oxford distinguished itself as the highest performing school in San Bernardino County, and Oxford’s charter school petition was renewed in December 2011, again with a 5-0 unanimous vote by the Chino Valley Unified School Board, for a five-year term from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2017.
Though Oxford continued to outperform the vast majority of other schools, public and private, in the state and expanded to three campuses, Chino Unified School District Superintendent Wayne Joseph, who had been instrumental in convincing the school board to back Roche in her effort to create Oxford in 2010, became aware that Roche was attempting to cash in on the success of Oxford. Roche had created two for-profit entities, Yorba Linda-based Edlighten Learning Systems and a Nevada corporation, Educational Excellence, in which she was the principal, and arranged with Barbara Black, whom she had installed as her successor as Oxford’s executive director, to have Oxford contract with both Edlighten and Educational Excellence for the provision of administrative services as well as education-related materials. Roche was able to do so because of her ability to dominate Oxford’s corporate board as it was previously composed. Upon Joseph’s recommendation, on March 17, 2016, the Chino Valley Unified School Board denied Oxford’s charter renewal petition, asserting Oxford was demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition, that the petition failed to describe a reasonably comprehensive description of 8 of 15 required elements, and the petition failed to provide legally required affirmations and assurances in compliance with state law, most notably with regard to the conflicts of interest inherent in Roche’s attempts at profit-taking.
Oxford Preparatory appealed to both the San Bernardino County Board of Education and the California State Board of Education. Both boards elected against taking any action on the petition, sending Oxford Preparatory Chino Valley back to Chino Valley Unified to pursue rechartering under the aegis of a revised petition. In August 2016, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre called upon the California Department of Education to initiate with the assistance of the state’s Fiscal Crisis Management and Auditing Team an audit of Oxford Preparatory Chino Valley pursuant to Education Code section 1241.5 (c). The findings of that audit, published on November 22, 2016, cataloged how Roche, in the characterization of the auditors, deliberately and with calculation created Edlighten and Educational Excellence “to divert and launder funds from Oxford Preparatory Academy,” in dodging accountability through a “daisy chain” of payments between for-profit companies which employed her family, friends and associates. The audit said 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. Those contracts, the audit said, imposed management service fees up to 10 percent, funneling charter school dollars from Oxford Preparatory Academy schools, 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, to $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, but as a result of the cancellation of Edlighten’s contract with Oxford in May 2016, Edlighten’s payments were cut off at $834,522 in 2016.
The issue of renewal was heard by the Chino Valley Unified School District for the second time on November 28, 2016, with the school board following Joseph’s recommendation and voting 5-0 vote to deny the appeal. On January 3, 2017, the San Bernardino County Board of Education voted unanimously not to receive the Oxford Prep Chino Valley appeal or establish a timeline for review. On January 31, 2017, Oxford submitted a last ditch petition to the California Department of Education. The California Department of Education will hold a public hearing on the matter in May and make a determination most likely before the expiration of Oxford’s charter in June. In preparation of that, Oxford sought to have the California Advisory Commission on Charter Schools review the matter to hopefully forward a positive recommendation on the requested rechartering to the Department of Education.
At the hearing on Wednesday, April 5, Andrew Vestey, the newly appointed chairman of the board of Oxford Preparatory Academy, said he did not see the “audit as the end for Oxford.” Rather, Vestey said, “We see it as a road for change.” He said upon reviewing the audit, Oxford moved with alacrity in correcting its course. “In less than two weeks we removed the chairman of the board, executive director and management team, all who had ties to the founder,” Vestey said. “Next, we turned our focus to the task of rebuilding,” including he said, finding an interim management team. “We looked internally first and soon realized that Denise Pascoe, chancellor of our Mission Viejo campus, met all requirements,” said Vestey “She is ethical, with no ties to the previous management team. Just two weeks later Mrs. Pascoe was selected as interim director. The board chose Mr. Andrew Crowe to step into the role of interim managing director. Neither Mrs. Pascoe nor Mr. Crowe had any authority over the [past] governing or operations. Simply put, they were not part of the problem. This was important because the new board understood we needed to send a clear message that illegal and dishonest behavior has no place at Oxford. Today Oxford has an experienced and highly qualified board to lead us through this transition.”
Chino Valley Unified’s attorney, Steven Chidester, conversely called upon the commission to support denying the charter extension. Saying “Local boards as well as parents and teachers have a right to expect that charter schools will hue not just to the law but to their charters,” he said that “beginning in 2012 the charter school actively act[ed] to evade the school district’s oversight. Oxford’s leadership withheld facts regarding Edlighten. Oxford’s management, with the help of the Oxford board, repeatedly lied to Oxford’s own auditors. Oxford’s governance structure is essentially the same as when Oxford engaged in financial mismanagement and Oxford’s actions continue to raise rather than address concerns about Oxford’s integrity and transparency.”
Chidester then referenced a matter that complicated Oxford’s effort to rehabilitate its reputation.
“Only 12 days ago,” said Chidester, “on March 24, the district obtained copies of two different account and security loan agreements, each for one million dollars, between Oxford and the California Credit Union, signed by executive director Barbara Black on August 31, 2016, that not only raise doubts about Oxford’s claimed strong financial position but raise questions about Oxford’s transparency because Oxford has never before provided documentation of transparency and respect for California law. On March 10, 2017, the district submitted a public records act request to Oxford for a copy of the March 2, 2017 board of directors meeting agenda packet. To this day, 26 days later, the district has received no response and no documents from Oxford. The district respectfully and with sincere sympathy for Oxford students and families asks for a nonrenewal recommendation, not because the district is anti-charter or out to get Oxford, but because the district has had its serious concerns about Oxford’s governance and finance. Oxford should not be renewed because two separate California state agencies, the Fiscal Crisis Management and Audit Team and the California Department of Education, in addition to the Chino Valley Unified School District have found that Oxford has not been transparent, that Oxford has failed to commit to its responsibility for the stewardship of public funds and that Oxford has failed to prove themselves deserving of the public trust.”
Oxford Board of Directors Vice-Chairwoman Sandra Garner told the commission that Childester’s remarks were applicable to the previous management at Oxford, which has been supplanted with a new team intent on salvaging the core values that Oxford represents but which were sullied by the actions of a few who are no longer present.
“The trajectory of some of these children’s lives will be forever changed if Oxford Chino closes its doors,” said Garner. “Some students will land on their feet and do well but others will suffer great harm. As educators and parents we have all seen a child with great potential and dreams suddenly go sideways because of one decision that no one can ever take back. These are the children we are fighting for today. With your help we can get this right. At this point it really comes down to one question: ‘Do you trust this board?’”
She insisted Oxford has put the self-dealing of the past behind it. “New board members took office at the end of last year,” she said. “I was convinced this board could make the tough calls and have the insight to see what was wrong and how to fix it. They acted quickly and decisively. They had what was needed to take charge of Oxford and turn this around. Does anyone really think these board members are going to put their careers and pensions at risk to allow anyone to do something illegal? This is the board you want to be in charge. This is the board who will not let you down. We ask for your vote.”
The pleas from Oxford’s proponents made a positive impression on several of the seven members of the commission present.
Commissioner Caitlin O’Halloran said she, for one was convinced that Oxford deserves support.
“I think what we’re hearing collectively around this dais is the desire on the part of the school, the commitment on the part of the organization, to engage with somebody, a third party, and to bring that [financial accountability] forward,” said O’Halloran. “At least in the responses that I have seen in writing and heard today, if I weren’t satisfied that the overwhelming majority of the Fiscal Crisis Management and Audit Team issues had been addressed, I wouldn’t be making the statements that I am today.” Commission Chairman Brian Bauer then made a motion “that this school be recommended for renewal before the state board satisfying the requirement that’s been mentioned numerous times.”
The motion passed, 4 to 3, with commissioners Brian Bauer, Caitlin O’Halloran, Dr. Mark Ryan and Wesley Sever in favor and Curtis Washington, Cindy Chan and Jon Gundy opposed. “So the item doesn’t move forward with an official recommendation for anything,” said Bauer. “To move out of this commission with a recommendation, it requires five votes. Nonetheless, there’s enough of a transcript of what’s transpired, which is going to be part of the record, anyway, for the state board that you can present.” -Mark Gutglueck

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