4th Appellate District Agrees To Second Guess Judge On Oxford Closure Ruling

In an extension of its discretion, the 4th District Court of Appeal has consented to make a review of the contentious closure of Oxford Preparatory Academy.
Last month, the permanent shuttering of the school as of last Friday seemed a virtual certainty. With the appellate court having inserted itself in the matter, the hopes of Oxford students and their parents that the legendary institution of primary education might yet remain in place have been revived. The appellate court on June 29 consented to reviewing a finding made the previous week by San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge David Cohn that the school board for the Chino Valley Unified School District acted within its legal authority and had not violated state law when it twice voted against renewing Oxford’s charter in 2016.
It is not the academic performance of its student body or the quality of education Oxford offered that consigned it to the scholastic gallows. Rather, it was, as has often proved to be the case with charter schools in California in general and San Bernardino County in particular, the degree to which the founder and operator of Oxford used her position of trust and authority with the academy to enrich herself, her family and her associates while running the non-profit elementary school level public educational institution.
According to a state audit, over a slightly-less-than-four-year period, Sue Roche, who in 2009 had obtained $3 million in backing from the district to create Oxford as an intensive learning environment, used two for-profit companies she created, Yorba Linda-based Edlighten Learning Solutions and Nevada-based Educational Excellence, to fleece Oxford of $5.3 million.
Oxford had an excellent academic track record, with students there outperforming all other students at the Kindergarten through 8th grade level throughout San Bernardino County, thanks in no small measure to Roche’s applied scholastic formula which she had developed when she was the principal at Rhodes Elementary School, which was consistently the highest-performing school in the Chino Valley Unified School District when she was there in the early 2000s. After Chino Valley Unified School District Superintendent Wayne Joseph discovered the questionable expenditures by Oxford in early 2006, he recommended against renewing Oxford’s charter, which was due to elapse as of June 30 this year. In March 2016, the Chino Valley Unified School District Board followed Joseph’s recommendation and declined to renew the charter. Oxford ended its relationship with Roche at that point and appealed the district ruling to San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre, who used the removal of Roche to assert that the appeal could not proceed because the management model that Chino Unified rejected no longer existed following Roche’s departure, and he refused to consider it. Simultaneously, he called in the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Team to carry out an audit of the school. That audit was in the pipeline in November when Chino Valley Unified took up the reapplication Oxford made and again rejected it. The Fiscal Crisis and Management Team confirmed the misspending of the $5.3 million in December. The increasingly panicked and desperate Oxford leadership sought a hearing from the California Board of Education. Meanwhile, Chino Valley Unified carried out an audit of its own, requisitioned by Oxford, determining Edlighten still controlled $900,000 that had not been used. Oxford sued Roche for the return of that money and intensified its efforts to garner rechartering. But Chino Valley Unified held fast and when a hearing on its appeal to the California Board of Education was held in Sacramento in May, Oxford’s proponents showed up en masse to assert that it had done penance for the sins of Roche, had made corrections and that it was unconscionable to shutter a school that had proven itself academically over and over and over again. But district officials were on hand to oppose that move. Though the rechartering was not opposed by a majority of the California Board of Education, the supermajority of the state board needed to sustain Oxford’s charter was not forthcoming and it appeared Oxford’s prospects of continuing to exist had been fully dashed.
Undaunted, the Oxford board and its management, administration and senior faculty lodged the petition with the Superior Court, which ended in the above reference ruling by Cohn. But Cohn, recognizing the passion of Oxford’s defenders, invited them to appeal his ruling. That they did and now the 4th Court of Appeal in Riverside will hear the same argument that Oxford propounded to Cohn, that “Increases in pupil academic achievement for all groups of pupils served by the charter school constitute the most important factor in determining whether to grant a charter renewal.” Chino Unified failed to recognize that, Oxford maintains. Cohn did not dispute that, per se, in his ruling, but held that other factors taken together outweighed the academic performance as the desired saving grace for the school.
On June 29, right up against the deadline for the closure of the school, Oxford’s attorneys filed papers with the appellate court, which granted an immediate order against the school being shut down as of the following day, subject to a “determination of the petition on its merits or until further order of the court.” Lawyers for the district were given until July 13 to file a written answer to Oxford’s petition.
The Chino Valley Unified school board, which intends to use the Oxford campus at the former El Rancho Elementary School located at the corner of C Street and Oaks Avenue in Chino, held a closed doors meeting that night, at which it gave direction to its legal team to prepare a comprehensive argument as to why the restraining order should be vacated and the closure of Oxford lifted so its closure can proceed.    –Mark Gutglueck

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