A former local charter school operator has agreed to pay a $16,000 fine for misconduct that includes using public education funds to lease her own buildings.
Under a tentative settlement with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, Kendra Okonkwo acknowledges that she improperly used her official position “to influence governmental decisions in which she had a financial interest,” according to documents posted Monday by the state agency.
The settlement or “stipulation” notes two instances of wrongdoing: establishing leases for the school in two buildings that Okonkwo owned and arranging for public funds to pay for renovations to these structures.
The school, Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists, lost its charter to operate and closed last year.
The violations cited this week by the state date from 2010 and 2011, when Okonkwo earned a total of $223,615 as the elementary school’s executive director. She also received about $19,000 a month in rent from the school. She attempted to eliminate the appearance of conflict by assigning the property to a new, separate corporation, for which her mother signed the leases. But the arrangement did not pass legal muster, according to the state.
The other violation pertains to Okonkwo signing contracts for school-funded renovations worth $62,000. Okonkwo addressed this conflict by resigning as executive director. Someone else then signed the renovation contract.
Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. Wisdom Academy began under the jurisdiction of the L.A. Unified School District, which refused to renew the school after its initial five-year charter expired.
A report to the school board cited “serious concerns pertaining to violations of conflict-of-interest laws against self-dealing on the part of the school's executive director as well as insufficient governance by the … board of directors.”
The county cited a report by state auditors, who concluded that administrators may have funneled millions in state funds to Okonkwo, her relatives and close associates.
And here's the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss:
But there is another place with a scandal-plagued charter sector that gets less national attention than it should: California, which has more charter schools and charter school students than any other state in the nation, and where one billionaire came up with a secret plan to “charterize” half of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
There is a never-ending stream of charter scandals coming from California. For example, a report released recently (by the ACLU SoCal and Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy group) found that more than 20 percent of all California charter schools have enrollment policies that violate state and federal law. A Mercury News investigation published in April revealed how the state’s online charter schools run by Virginia-based K12 Inc., the largest for-profit charter operator in the country, have “a dismal record of academic achievement” but has won more than $310 million in state funding over the past dozen years.
If you're in a hurry and just want the sharp and funny highlights, you can always go with Esquire's inimitable Mr. Pierce:
There's now a bill before Governor Jerry Brown that would tighten the public accountability standards for charter operators within the state. The evidence is now abundantly clear in a number of states: As it is presently constituted, the charter school movement is far better as an entry vehicle for fraud and corruption than it is for educating children. The fact that the charter industry is fighting to maintain its independent control over taxpayer funds is proof that the industry knows it, too.
I'd like to emphasize the "as it is presently constituted." There are a lot of good people working for charter schools today, but if we don't fix the current system's perverse incentives, that good faction will be driven away.