Oxford Charter Academy’s storied seven year-run as the most successful academic institution in San Bernardino County history will draw to a close next month, the California State Board of Education ruled last week.
Ultimately and ironically, the woman who built the charter school into what was the highest performing school in San Bernardino County consistently since the year it opened based upon her insightful and intensive educational formula and emphasis on basics and parental participation proved the major factor in the school’s demise.
Oxford’s death throes came not in Chino, the community where it had made such an indelible impression, but in Sacramento on May 11 of this year. The California Board of Education, torn between, on one hand, the stellar academic achievement of the thousands of students who had formerly attended the school and the hopeful expectations of the parents of the engaged and excelling current Oxford student body and on the other hand the abject greed bordering on criminality of the school’s founder, turned down a conditional extension of Oxford’s charter. The board then declined to vote on a final appeal of a string of chartering renewal rejections that began 14 months ago. “We have taken no action,” said California Board of Education Chairman Dr. Michael Krist. “That is the same as a denial.”
Oxfords precipitous plunge which began last year was no less stunning and was even more dramatic than its meteoric rise a half dozen years ago was spectacular.
In 2010, the Chino Valley Unified School District, at the urging of superintendent Wayne Joseph, entrusted Sue Roche with $3 million in taxpayer funds to make a go of creating a charter school. Joseph was willing to make that gamble based upon Roche’s record of achievement beginning in April 2003 as the principal at Rhodes Elementary School, which was consistently the highest-performing school in the Chino Valley Unified School District. After considering establishing the campus at the former Los Serranos Elementary School site in Chino Hills, the district opened 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, an intensified classroom focus and heavy doses of parental involvement, Oxford exceeded all expectations.
In 2011, students at Oxford Preparatory Academy collectively outperformed their counterparts at every other elementary and junior high school in San Bernardino County, as measured by their scores on California’s Standard Testing And Reporting exams, which measured students’ progress toward achieving California’s state-adopted academic content standards in English–language arts, mathematics, science, and history/social science. They repeated the feat in 2012 and 2013. Oxford had an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 958 in 2011 and improved to 972 in 2012, a rating which put it safely within the top two percent of schools in the state. 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 many as 600 per year, requiring that the district hold a lottery as a means of granting admission to it. 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.
Under California law, charter schools are sponsored by a public school district and are supported by taxpayer funds but are given autonomy, within certain parameters, to carry out their educational missions in compliance with each school’s declared educational goals and according to its curriculum approved by the sponsoring school district’s school board. Each charter school has its own internal corporate board, which is independent of the district board. Charter schools are not given indefinite license to operate, but are chartered for a defined number of years. To continue beyond that point they must have their charters extended.
In December 2011, the Chino Valley Unified School District’s 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.
In early 2015, with Oxford due to again seek an extension of its charter, the widespread assumption was that it would be routinely granted. But Joseph and other Chino Valley Unified officials, who had looked past the limelight of the academy’s spectacular scholastic accomplishments, had found that Roche had made a number of changes in the academy’s management structure by which Roche stood to profit – and profit handsomely. A first step Roche took to cash in on the institution she had created was done quietly and nonchalantly when in 2012 she incorporated Edlighten Learning Solutions, based in Yorba Linda and identified as a for-profit “charter management company.”
In 2014, Roche 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. She then arranged to have Oxford contract for the administrative services she was providing not directly with her but through Edlighten Learning Solutions. Upon Roche’s direction, Black had Oxford Charter Academy enter into a contractual arrangement to pay Edlighten $5.3 million to, essentially, employ Roche as the school’s contract administrator and operations director over the next four years and simultaneous employ a coterie of Roche’s associates in various capacities over the same timeframe.
When the issue of renewing Oxford’s charter came before the school board on March 17, 2016, Joseph dropped a bombshell on the community, recommending against the charter renewal. To support his position, Joseph presented an analysis of the charter renewal petition done by the accounting firm of Vavrinek, Trine & Day, which stated in its conclusion “the petition presents an unrealistic financial and operational plan.” Roche was, Joseph asserted, seeking to exploit the non-profit Oxford Preparatory Academy and line her own pockets. He accused her of creating and then engaging in a financial conflict of interest which would shortchange 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 relying upon the reputation Oxford had attained and was manipulating the academy’s reliance on consultants, of which she was the primary one, to profit. He said that “renewal of the Oxford Preparatory Academy’s petition is not consistent with sound educational practice.” 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 2016. It then appealed the district’s decision to the county school board and San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre. The county school board declined to take any action, maintaining the appeal pertained to a rejected application, and that the relationship to Roche and Edlighten no longer existed, thus making an appeal unwarranted. Oxford took a duel track approach, turning to the State Department of Education, seeking to get a charter from it, and submitted a revised application to the Chino Valley Unified Board. In the meantime, Alejandre had made a request for an audit.
The Fiscal Crisis & Management Team, an adjunct to the California Department of Education, carried out that audit and in early December delivered a 45-page audit summary and report, 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. The Chino Valley Unified School Board, provided with an advance copy of the audit, rejected the renewed application in November.
Oxford officials were thus reduced to putting all of their eggs in the basket of hope represented by the petition for rechartering made to the California Board of Education. Having already parted ways with Roche and Edlighten, they attempted to further distance the academy from her. Several of the academy’s board members associated with her voluntarily resigned. The academy board adopted new bylaws and policies meant to prevent any future financial abuse. The academy moved to quantify the funds it believed had been misdirected by Roche, determining that Roche had been the recipient of $125,435.39 in payments that had not been authorized by the academy’s board. The academy succeeded in recovering $15,900 of that amount from Roche and sought full reimbursement of the remaining $109,535.39 from Roche. On March 17, it went even further, filing a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against Roche and Edlighten Learning Solutions. The lawsuit alleged breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, negligence, and violations of business and professions code Section 17200.
Preparatory toward the California Board of Education’s ultimate determination in the matter, Oxford came before the California Board of Education’s Advisory Commission on Charter Schools on April 5, seeking to make a case that Oxford deserved to continue on. And indeed, Andrew Vestey, the newly appointed chairman of the board of Oxford Preparatory Academy and several other Oxford proponents, including board vice-chair Sandra Garner, made a compelling case that the academy’s board and management had remade the institution, keeping the academic elements that were so worth preserving and salvaging the core values that Oxford represents, while making crucial and salutary changes by supplanting the previous management at Oxford that had sullied its name. Those assertions and arguments were made in the face of Chino Valley Unified’s attorney, Steven Chidester, who belabored the difficulties Oxford had experienced and the results of the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team audit and referenced 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, which he insisted raised doubts about Oxford’s claimed strong financial position. The advisory 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. Thus, the matter came before the California Board of Education on May 11 as something of an orphan.
Nevertheless, board member Sue Burr appeared to be disposed toward allowing Oxford to carry on. She expressed concern that Oxford had not been afforded the opportunity to pursue its appeal at the county level.
“That seems to greatly diminish the ability of charter petitioners to get a fair shot at the local level,” Burr said “and the whole process is supposed to rely on consideration at the district and then the county before they get it up here. So, I would just like to know what we can do about that to make them [the county superintendent of schools] assume their responsibilities.”
Denise Pascoe, who had been the chancellor of Oxford’s Mission Viejo campus and is now serving in the capacity of the interim director at Oxford in Chino, told the board, “Our student results outperform the local school district, county and state averages, with a student population of Hispanic 49.5 percent, Caucasian 22.1 percent, Asian 13.4 percent, African American 2.2 percent, Filipino 5.9 percent. We were the number one school in San Bernardino County.”
Vestey told the board that the Oxford parents and board members were appalled upon learning from the audit “what our founder had done. It was her job to protect our children and she used them to enrich herself. It was wrong, immoral and unforgivable. We knew we were about to lose something special because of one person’s greed if Oxford didn’t fix the problem. Parents, students and community members came together to say, ‘Enough.’ They wanted everyone who was responsible for this out. They demanded Barbara Black, the executive management team and the board – former board chair be removed. Three parents were now in charge of the board of directors. While this was new territory to us, the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team provided a roadmap to recovery. We hired experts to help us navigate the legal issues. We hired new auditors and a back office provider, Charter Impact, to help us unravel the mess the previous administration created. We removed anyone in positions of authority that led to the fiscal mismanagement or culture that allowed it to happen. The entire management team is gone. The entire board of directors is gone. Twelve people have been eliminated. The only people left were teachers, chancellors and classified staff and five strangers driven by one passion: to save a school for 1,200 innocent children who did nothing wrong. The new board put our skills to work to turn things around.
We knew we were starting from scratch. We had to rebuild our budgets from the ground up. We didn’t even have access to all of our bank accounts. The past management made all decisions at the top, and entirely controlled everything. Now we understood why. Over the next six months this board would hold 21 board meetings and approve 11 new policies and procedures to correct the concerns that led to the alleged fraud and misappropriation of funds. We also hired an independent third party, Panelli Management Company, to take over disbursement, budgeting, payroll and bookkeeping. In five months we eliminated all conflicts of interest, put internal controls in place to ensure something like this can never happen again. We also filed a lawsuit against Sue Roche and Edlighten Learning Systems to recover public funds, but the board wanted another layer of safeguards. We hired a state approved auditing firm to do monthly reviews of our finances and internal controls to ensure they were effective and our finances were clean. Two monthly reviews have been completed, and no concerns have been reported. All internal controls are in place. We’re in the early stages of litigation against Sue Roche and Edlighten Learning Systems. Once public funds have been recovered, this will be complete.”
Vestey continued, “Chino Unified continues to say our board lacks transparency. Our other authorizers disagree. Capistrano Unified and the Orange County Board of Education have commended us on our continuing dialogue. Consequently, neither has moved to revoke charters. Same governance, different outcomes. It has been clear since the beginning Chino is interested in one outcome: closing our school. Orange County wants to save them. While we have done everything that’s been asked of us, if this board decides additional changes are needed, we will accept any technical amendments or conditions to keep our school open. The California Department of Education believes the steps we have taken to resolve the concerns raised in the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team report are insufficient and we should be denied. However, that was prior to [steps we have taken to ensure] all remaining concerns have now been addressed. The organizational charter in our petition states our chancellors will report to our executive director. Currently our chancellors report to the managing director.”
Vestey noted that it has been charged that “Oxford’s nepotism policy allows too much latitude. We agree,” he said. “We changed this at our March 27 board meeting. The findings from three audits became our recovery plan to recover funds. The board has attended fraud training. Two signatures are now required for approval of any expense over $10,000. The signatures are the executive director and board chairman.”
“We have taken responsibility for the actions of Sue Roche,” Vestey said. “Please don’t judge us today by what she has done.”
Chino Valley Unified’s attorney, Steven Chidester, told the board, “The district asks that the board adopt the California Department of Education staff recommendation to deny the Oxford charter renewal based upon the California Department of Education’s finding the Oxford petitioners are not likely to successfully implement the programs set forth in the petition because of the history of fiscal mismanagement and because Oxford has presented an unrealistic operational plan and because Oxford’s budget cannot be deemed viable due to the potential of undiscovered contracts, transactions, extended liabilities, loans and obligations and the lack of valid audit reports. We believe the California Department of Education. We ask not because our district is anti-charter. In fact, our board voted twice to unanimously approve the Chino Oxford Academy in 2010 and again in 2012. And we ask not without concern for Oxford students. Instead we ask because we have statutory oversight over Oxford Preparatory Academy’s fiscal condition and as you have heard, the Fiscal Crisis & Management Team found the Oxford board administration, staff and Oxford’s culture permitted Oxford’s founder and former executive director to divert over $4.7 million of public funds. We ask also because we see the parents of Oxford students’ reaction. Our perspective on their reaction is that our district has accepted 129 Oxford student transfers this school year. Additionally our district has 449 Oxford students transfer requests for the 2017/18 school year.”
Grace Park, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction with the Chino Valley Unified School District said, “Oxford should not be renewed because even after seven-and-a-half years of operation the school’s demographics does not mirror the district’s. Neighboring schools from Oxford Preparatory Academy have a socioeconomically disadvantaged Latino population that ranges from 85 to 88 percent. At Oxford it is 62.9 percent. Even more concerning, English learner enrollment at schools neighboring, less than 2 miles away, from Oxford range from 25 to 43 percent. At Oxford, eight percent are English learners. Oxford Preparatory Academy perpetuates a culture of excluding underserved populations, and therefore should not be renewed.”
“We’re in an untenable position,” said board member Sue Burr. “We do not want to do anything to harm these lovely children who are having a fantastic educational experience by their own testimony and by the evidence we have.”
Board member Bruce Holaday, suggesting the students at the school were being scapegoated for Roche’s action, said, “I believe that this is a group of teachers, parents and kids who are benefiting from this charter school. I believe that wrongdoing did take place but I also believe that there has been an enormous effort to clean house and I trust that that has taken place. There may be another shoe that drops down the road.” Holaday then offered a motion to approve the school’s appeal, contingent upon an oversight protocol. But as was indicated during the discussion of the board, there was a belief that there could yet be lingering liability issues attending the Edlighten contracts. That Oxford had failed to fully determine what obligations might remain as a consequence of the Edlighten contracts gave several members of the board pause.
In the end, Oxford was unable to overcome the perception that it remained out of compliance with regard to a number of critical yardsticks and requirements. The school was felled by this perception, which was fueled by a school district audit showing Edlighten Learning Systems still had over $890,000 in Oxford funds to which it was absolutely not entitled, that the number of Latino students attending Oxford was smaller, percentagewise than the number of Latino students in the most geographically proximate schools within the Chino Valley Unified School District, that Oxford does not offer free or reduced price meals to its students within a district where 46.4 percent of students are so eligible and in a neighborhood where 72.5 percent of students attending elementary school are so eligible, that Oxford paid more than $212,000 in public charter school funds to settle claims by four former terminated oxford administrators and that the state audit determined that Oxford did not abide by industry accepted accounting principles.
Nicolasa Sandoval, said, “I really appreciate the heart, the passion of the educators, the students, the volunteers, the board members of this organization. I also am grateful for this option that’s being presented by member Holaday but I still believe there are too many unresolved issues that have yet to be addressed, too many unknowns. And even with these conditions that are being proposed I still don’t feel like I can support that renewal or the motion.”
On a 4 to 6 vote, the motion died, and with it, Oxford Preparatory Academy.
Oxford Charter Academy’s storied seven year-run as the most successful academic institution in San Bernardino County history will draw to a close next month, the California State Board of Education ruled last week.