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LA Unified's internal investigator becomes flashpoint in charter school debate

FILE - Cassy Horton, a director of regional advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, testifies in support of a charter application at a Los Angeles Unified school board meeting in Feb. 2016.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
FILE - Cassy Horton, a director of regional advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, testifies in support of a charter application at a Los Angeles Unified school board meeting in Feb. 2016.

Charter school advocates and Los Angeles Unified School District leaders are again toe-to-toe, this time over a bill in the state legislature that would limit the school board's ability to use the district's internal investigator to oversee charter schools.

L.A. Unified School Board members will consider passing a resolution opposing the legislation, AB 2806, at their meeting on Tuesday.

The resolution's authors, including board president Steve Zimmer, see the bill as an attack on the independence of that agency — the Office of the Inspector General — and an effort to ensure special treatment for charter schools. 

"Approval of this legislation would establish a separate standard for charter schools that would increase the risk of waste, fraud and abuse and impede a chartering agency’s ability to respond to allegations to clearly determine the facts and make sound conclusions," the resolution reads.

But leaders of the California Charter Schools Association countered that L.A. Unified administrators are overusing the Inspector General's office — and its extraordinary investigative powers to subpoena witnesses and conduct confidential investigations — to carry out the fairly ordinary work of overseeing charter schools. The office is charged with sniffing out fraud and abuse in the district.

"When the district does that oversight through the function of the OIG, it turns it into a different animal," said Colin Miller, the charter association's acting senior vice president of government affairs.

In order to open, charter schools across California must apply for authorization, usually from the local school district. They have to repeat the process for renewal at least every five years. Miller said charter authorizers also audit each charter school's finances annually.

L.A. Unified is the only California school district with an Inspector General. Miller said AB 2806 attempts to delineate when and how the agency can exercise its unique investigative powers with charter schools.

If the school board directs L.A. Unified's Inspector General to look into a charter school, AB 2806 would require the board to define the scope and timeline for the investigation. If the Inspector General found a problem, the office would have to publish a report on its findings and give the charter school's staff a chance to correct the problems. Only after that could the school board move to punish the school or close it down.

The state's non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office takes issue with the proposed legislation. It said AB 2806 directly violates several principles designed to ensure the Inspector General's independence from outside political pressures. It also said the bill's requirement that the OIG publicly announce it's launching an investigation at a charter school is deeply problematic.

"This could undermine investigations by giving the subject of the audit time to destroy or falsify documents and hinder the cooperation of witnesses, who may fear retaliation or retribution," the analyst's report said.

Miller said AB 2806 does not limit the Inspector General's powers to launch its own inquiries into possible criminal activities at charter schools, so long as those inquiries are not being conducted on behalf of other school district officials.

And L.A. Unified was criticized two years ago for using an Inspector General report in an attempt to shut down two Magnolia Science Academy charter school campuses. A report from the State Auditor found L.A. Unified had misused the report, basing its decision "on a summary of draft findings [from the OIG] that did not provide key context about the financial situations of those academies and it did not provide sufficient time for the Foundation to respond to its criticisms."

The board's resolution comes amid broader debate over advocates' plans to expand the number of charters schools in L.A. Unified — a move district officials fear could hurt the district's enrollment and finances.

Another of those flashpoints has been the district's sharing of charter school facilities. Under state law — known by the name of the ballot measure that created it, Prop. 39 — school districts must make efforts to share space on its campuses with charter operators who need facilities.

A private arbitrator recently ruled L.A. Unified must pay a $7.1 million penalty to Ivy Academia Charter School for its failure to provide the school with a facility under Prop. 39. It also must cover the cost of more than $652,000 in attorney's fees.