Effort To Charter Remake Of Oxford Preparatory Academy Rejected

Advocates for the rechartering of Oxford Preparatory Academy last night were unable to overcome the second of the school’s founder’s dual legacies and convince the Chino Valley Unified School District’s board that the once-vaunted educational institution deserved a chance to redeem its good name.
After an seven-year run, Oxford Preparatory Academy’s Chino Valley campus was shuttered at the end of July. During its first six years, Oxford, based in large measure on the intensive educational approach of its founder Sue Roche, soared to academic heights rarely achieved by either public or private schools in California. But in the last 18 months of its existence, because of Roche’s stewardship of its financial affairs, Oxford crashed to earth in an ignominious demise similarly rare among schools in the Golden State.
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 rated 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, and would go on to do that again in 2015 and 2016. With an average Academic Performance Index (API) score of 964, Oxford was ranked safely within the top two percent of schools in the state. By 2011, enthusiasm for the Oxford undertaking was so high, that the number of student applicants to attend the school began and continued to outrun 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.
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 following year, 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, despite Oxford’s students having consistently tested as the top academic performers among Kindergarten through 8th grade public schools in San Bernardino County. 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 dual 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 2016 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 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.
In January, the Oxford board grew serious about distancing Oxford from Roche. 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. On March 17, Oxford 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.
Oxford then appealed to the California Board of Education to have its charter extended, and in an effort to put its best foot forward went before the California Board of Education’s Advisory Commission on Charter Schools on April 5, seeking to make a case that Oxford deserved to remain in place. 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, with members Brian Bauer, Caitlin O’Halloran, Dr. Mark Ryan and Wesley Sever weighing in on behalf of Oxford. 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.
Though California Board of Education members Bruce Holaday and Sue Burr strongly supported allowing Oxford to carry on, they were able to get only two of their eight colleagues to support the renewal application, and the board accordingly declined to rule on the appeal, entering no decision. Oxford then used the state school board’s abstention as the basis to seek a judicial review of its charter extension, removing the matter to the Fourth District Court of Appeal. Ultimately, on July 25, that panel entered a ruling against Oxford Prep, lifting a previous stay it granted Oxford that prevented the Chino Valley Unified from reclaiming the El Rancho Elementary School campus where Oxford had been operating. Chino Unified reoccupied the El Rancho school grounds, and with Oxford’s funding from the state discontinued, the school closed.
Ever determined, parents of Oxford students and Oxford staff members and other supporters put together proposals to revive Oxford, Oxford Rise being one of those and a school dubbed Allegiance Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math Academy – Thrive being another. Those proposals have been presented to the Chino Valley Unified School District. Last night, the school board took up the Oxford Rise application, nearly a month after an October 5 public hearing at which the proposal was previewed.
District staff had carried out an analysis of that petition, which included La Verne-based certified public accountant Paul S. Horvat’s determination of whether the proponents’ reckoning of whether Oxford Rise would perform financially in accordance with state guidelines. Horvat’s verdict was not encouraging. Moreover, according to the analysis, virtually the only support for the chartering consists of former Oxford parents, and the model of the new version of Oxford is virtually indistinguishable from Oxford Preparatory Academy that has been rejected. Most damning was the staff finding that many of those involved in the Oxford Rise proposal have connections to the now-discredited Roche, and were what was referred to as her “loyal followers.”
Thus the specter of Roche, hanging over Oxford, appears to have smothered the charter school. Her first legacy – that of solid, indeed exemplary, academic achievement – captured the imagination and intense and passionate support of the parents of Oxford students. But her second legacy – one of self-serving greed and exploitation of the students, their teachers and parents, the school and school district and the taxpayers – appears to have consigned Oxford to permanent closure, at least in Chino Valley, where it originated.
Board member Sylvia Orosco summed up the board majority’s position. “The Oxford Preparatory Academy board of directors are accountable to no one,” she said.
By a vote of 4-1, with James Na dissenting, the school board rejected the request to charter Oxford Rise.
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.
The Chino Valley Unified School District Board is scheduled to consider the other Oxford clone proposal, Allegiance Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math Academy – Thrive on November 9.
Oxford is experiencing rough sledding elsewhere. On September 15, the Capistrano Unified told Oxford Preparatory it was initiating an audit of Oxford’s South Orange County campus.
-Mark Gutglueck

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