LAUSD dropped large bills on two charter schools over the past two weeks, and then three Board members threatened to deny their renewal Tuesday if they did not pay up, even though the unexpected bills were not yet due.
Weeks after saying he wanted to depoliticize the charter renewal process, Board President Richard Vladovic (BD7) vowed to deny the renewal of high-performing Citizens of the World Hollywood elementary and YPI’s Bert Carona High, alongside Board Members Jackie Goldberg (BD5) and Scott Schmerelson (BD3), despite district staff recommendations to approve both schools.
“I’m not being unfair,” Vladovic said. “We need the money.”
In the end, the Board voted unanimously to keep the schools open, but only after Board Member Nick Melvoin (BD4) likened the process to extortion, and it became clear there were not four votes to shut the schools down.
YPI Chief Operations Officer Ruben Dueñas, a former LAUSD teacher and administrator, grew emotional when discussing the threat to YPI schools. “I’m nervous. My kids go to these schools. The feeling is -- shut down my schools. Shut down my kids and their opportunity…The conversation is threatening.”
At issue was the over-allocation of Prop 39 space to charters co-locating on district campuses. Prop 39 is the law that states that public charter schools have a right to an equal share of public school space. LAUSD staff said the district has the legal right to collect reimbursement when charters over-estimate their enrollment and space needs.
LAUSD, however, has not collected these fees in the past and failed to follow its own billing timeline set forth in a resolution that was passed in 2012 but never implemented, in part, because of legal challenges. Instead, LAUSD sent bills for three years of back payment to schools days before renewal.
“I don’t think anyone is up here saying we don’t want money that we’re owed,” Melvoin said. “My interest is in fairness and due process. I don’t know that we’re playing by the rules because the rules seem to have just been created in the last couple of weeks.
Superintendent Austin Beutner disclosed that LAUSD had sent 41 charter schools 64 bills and had collected $850,000 in back payment since last August. KPCC obtained a document showing exactly how much each charter network was charged. Beutner said LAUSD will remind charters going forward of their legal obligation to report over-allocation of Prop 39 space.
YPI Charter Schools Executive Director Yvette King-Berg said her school had just received a bill for more than $198,000 on Sept. 11 and was given 20 days to respond by Oct. 1. The amount of the bill was above her authority to pay, and with YPI board members out of town, there was simply no way for her to review the accuracy and pay the bill before Tuesday’s renewal vote.
Dueñas added that no one at the district could explain the details of the bill the school had just received. “You don’t understand those numbers either,” he said. “The process isn’t clear. The amounts aren’t clear.”
Melvoin asked LAUSD’s general counsel to clarify whether the Board had the legal authority to deny renewal because of bills that were not due until October, but fellow board members threatened to stop the meeting and go into closed session so the public could not hear the answer.
Board Member George McKenna (BD1) proposed a compromise. “If they were invoiced recently, to expect a response within a week or two weeks is not fair,” he said. “Perhaps partial payments are appropriate right now, but I’m not willing to say because you didn’t get invoiced means you didn’t owe.”
McKenna and Board Member Kelly Gonez (BD6) pointed out that the schools would likely be successful in appealing any denials to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, at which point LAUSD would lose all oversight authority and decrease its chances of ever collecting on the bills.
“Pragmatically, it would probably be more difficult to get them to pay up what they owe to us,” Gonez said.
Vladovic attempted, unsuccessfully, to get the charters to agree to delay the date by which the Board was legally required to vote on their renewal, after which the renewal is automatic. Vladovic said he’d vote to deny and then threatened to sue Los Angeles County to collect the money if the schools successfully appealed those denials.
“I don’t think it’s a sound educational program if they can’t pay their bills,” Vladovic said.
Goldberg also vowed to vote against the schools unless they agreed to a payment plan on the spot. “I am not trying to do anyone harm, but we’ve got an underfunded district,” she said.
Goldberg and Vladovic softened their stance after realizing they did not have four votes to deny and after both schools vowed to pay what they legally owe, as they said they always had in the past.