After nearly two hours of discussion and public comments, the William S. Hart Union High School District denied the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences’ five-year charter renewal petition Wednesday night.
The decision came as a shock to the charter school’s students, parents and administration, who packed the Hart district board room to show support for their school and its academics.
“We need to exercise our fiduciary responsibility for the rest of the Santa Clarita Valley for whom pays the cost associated to the other 22,000 students and their families and their relatives and friends,” Board Member Steven Sturgeon said. “I’m going to move that we deny this petition. I apologize for that from the bottom of my heart, but we need to move forward for the whole community.”
The decision to deny the petition was a unanimous one, mainly driven by the governing board’s concern for the charter school’s finances and governing structure.
“Our concern is not with the academic structure but the financial structure and governance structure,” Superintendent Vicki Engbrecht said.
Before denying the charter, board members offered an alternative solution for Einstein leadership: remove itself from the larger Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences organization and resubmit a new, independent charter petition to the district.
At the end of the meeting, it was uncertain if this was the path the school’s leadership was going to take moving forward.
“You’re giving us something to think about,” said Maggie Ford, the school’s CEO. “Tomorrow we already have a board meeting that is agendized to handle whatever you want to do.”
The charter school also has the ability to appeal its petition to the Los Angeles County Board of Education and then the state Board of Education. If one of the agencies accepts the petition, it would be responsible for overseeing the charter.
Before the charter’s denial, six students, two parents, one teacher and Principal Michael McDonnell pleaded with the board to accept the school’s petition by sharing stories of the school’s personal impact on the students’ academic and social development.
“AEA is my family,” junior Briana Garden said. “This school has allowed me to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do at a larger school.”
Carson Williams, the school’s student body president, attended the charter for five years and said the school helped him thrive.
“A smaller school environment is one that I and so many others just simply learn better in. It’s not an issue of necessity, it’s an issue of choice,” he said. “My education and those of my peers has been bolstered by the small school size, supportive teachers and outstanding community.”
McDonnell said the charter’s future outlook for financial success and academic success of the students should be enough to approve the petition moving forward.
“The young people in this room deserve to continue their education in the school of their choice where they can continue to thrive socially, emotionally and academically,” he said.
However, despite the charter’s academic successes and turnout at the meeting, the board said financial and governing issues were too significant to ignore.
“Regrettably, Einstein’s many admirable qualities must be weighed in the context of numerous egregious financial and management concerns for the years leading up to this renewal petition,” Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Mike Kuhlman said.
Financial concerns for the charter include two delinquent audits, $4 million in deficits and negative working capital of more than $3 million that create liabilities for the district.
The charter was also sued by its former CEO for wrongful termination, by another employee and by the Los Angeles Unified School District and Newhall district.
District staff also expressed concerns over the charter’s governing structure that expanded into a larger Charter Management Organization (CMO) of AELAS, Inc. without the district’s knowledge.
“You’re in the wrong structure that we agreed to seven years ago,” Sturgeon said.
The charter’s involvement with the CMO created a lack of oversight, accountability and transparency with the public and with the Hart District, according to Hart District staff.
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