McAteer blasts charter school; state warns of financial risk
A Penn Valley charter school’s failure to take attendance properly and have more contact between teachers and home-study students may put its school district at financial risk, a state oversight agency reported this week.
Ready Springs Union School District trustees should consider their financial liability if Vantage Point Charter School, which operates under their aegis, does not start complying with state regulations, Joel Montero, deputy executive officer of the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, wrote in a report dated Jan. 28.
The charter school’s methods of claiming reimbursement from the state for its average daily attendance are often improper, undocumented and unsubstantiated, Montero wrote.
“It’s possible that (the school district) could lose money if the charter school does not put procedures in place to track attendance,” Montero said. “At some point, they could find themselves liable for any shortfall. They certainly have a vested interest.”
Auditors from the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team reviewed the charter school’s records on Jan. 10 and 11.
In a blistering three-page letter, Terry McAteer, county superintendent of schools, wrote that “taxpayers will be appalled to know that” the charter school’s attendance records do not match the records sent to the state, and that students in the school’s home-study program have infrequent contact with teachers.
Attendance collection is a priority, since schools receive money from the state according to how many students attend, McAteer said Thursday.
“The taxpayers have been gypped,” McAteer wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to the Vantage Point Charter School Council and the Ready Springs Board of Trustees.
McAteer said that five years ago, he discovered that the K-12 charter school – located in the old Penn Valley Post Office on Penn Valley Road – was counting attendance in an improper and illegal method and asked a state oversight agency to investigate the school.
Delaine Eastin, the state’s superintendent of education, wrote in a 1997 report that she was dismayed at the “extraordinarily long periods of time” between teachers’ contact with students. About 35 or 40 of the charter school’s approximately 105 students are in a home-study program, and do not attend school at the site every day.
That the charter school has not followed necessary procedures “isn’t new news,” said Grant, who has been superintendent of the school district for about 18 months.
The same concerns were addressed five years ago, McAteer said. But five years later the same, “if not more flagrant, violations exist,” he wrote.
“This is in stark contrast to all 17 other charters in Nevada County …” McAteer wrote. “Five years is long enough to have complied. This must and will stop!”
McAteer wrote that the responsibility for “these unacceptable practices lies with (charter school) Executive Director Tessa McGarr.”
McGarr said a district auditor looked over the school’s records last spring and only found one minor problem: A child had forgotten to sign and return his contract.
“We’re kind of confused as to why we’re hearing about these problems now,” McGarr said.
One failing Montero cited is exactly what an auditor from the Perry-Smith accounting firm in Sacramento told the school to do, McGarr said.
Auditors advised teachers to put a check mark at the top of completed schoolwork to verify that a teacher had seen the work, McGarr said.
Students’ work is not signed or dated by a certificated teacher, Montero’s report states: “Only a check mark is reflected on the documents.”
“That’s exactly what the auditor told us to do,” McGarr said. “There are a lot of things (throughout the report) that are like that.”
McAteer put a red flag on the district’s recent interim financial statement.
Grant agreed with McAteer’s assessment of the relationship between the school board and the charter council as having “so much rancor.”
Grant said the board planned to discuss at its meeting Tuesday whether it would revoke Vantage Point’s charter.
“We’re at the point now where that will be a topic of conversation, that’s for sure,” Grant said. “When we lose trust and confidence in how they do business, we have to reconsider. I’m concerned about our risk as a district.”
Grant said it is too early to determine how much money the district stands to lose.
Stormy Trahern, president of the Ready Springs board of trustees, said that revoking the charter is “not our first choice.”
“We’re trying to be very creative about how to meet the needs of the kids,” Trahern said.
Greg Fultz, a Vantage Point Charter council member, said taking attendance is not the real issue.
“Our comment is that this is about enrollment and special education,” Fultz said from the school Thursday evening. “This is not about attendance reporting or the budget.
“This only came to a head after we began to document the fact that Ready Springs School, under the direction of Merrill Grant, is out of compliance with their special-ed mandate,” Fultz said.
“I don’t know where that’s coming from,” Grant said. “That’s erroneous. That’s coming from nowhere. That’s the first I’ve heard about it.”
Lori Grothe, charter council president, said, “The truth will come out.”
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