Second California charter school found to be ‘misusing’ taxpayer dollars in past two weeks

Lacking the same oversight and transparency as the state’s public schools, a second charter school in San Fernando Valley – NEW Academy Canoga Park – was charged with “misuse” of $2.7 million of taxpayer dollars in an audit released last week by the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Inspector General’s Office. Ramon Cortines, LAUSD Schools Superintendent is moving to close down the school. Until now, virtually no charter schools have been forced to shut down.

Concluding that the problems were due to a complete lack of oversight by school board members, the audit found that the former Principal of NEW Academy, Edward Fiszer, transferred nearly $1.1 million from the school accounts to his personal account. The auditors also charge the Mr. Fiszer paid a former teacher (and his wife) $129,450 to be a grant writer, despite the fact that the school already had a company on contract for grant-writing services. Additionally, another $62,247 was paid to a company called Burgundy Bunny, yet it could not be confirmed the company ever existed.

This report follows on the heels Los Angeles County’s District Attorney’s office charging Eugene Selivanov and his wife Tayan Berlovish with embezzling more than $200,000 when they were in charge of Ivy Academia – a charter school located in West San Fernando Valley that is funded with state and federal taxpayer dollars. 

Unlike public schools, charter schools are exempt from laws that require access to records or public meetings. Their school boards are also exempt from any kind of transparency when it comes to spending and potential conflicts-of-interest. The California School Boards Association has twice tried to advance legislation that would require charter schools to adhere to the same transparency and conflict-of-interest requirements of other taxpayer financed (public) schools to no avail. In the 2003-2004 and the 2007-2008 sessions, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed each of the bills when they reached his desk.  

As for NEW Academy, the school board has fired the Principal and is aggressively arguing that school should remain open because its students are doing well.  According to board chair Maggie Cervantes:

     “It is clear that our school has been a victim of fraud. The school is taking aggressive and necessary steps to recover its assets and work to successfully resolve this issue. These steps have included terminating the employment of the former principal of the school.”  

The California legislature has wasted little time – some could argue it is trying for a third time – to attempt to increase transparency among the state’s charter schools. AB 572, sponsored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), would require charter school officials to disclose conflicts-of-interest and make board meetings and minutes open to the public. AB 572 has passed both the Assembly and Senate and is now on its way to Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk. 

Could the third time be the charm?