California audit clears L.A.’s largest charter school network of misspending

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Maria Esparza of Huntington Park, shown outside Alliance Gertz-Ressler Academy High School in Los Angeles last November, holds up a sign detailing parents’ concerns about Alliance’s handling of unionization efforts. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A state audit released Thursday of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools has cleared the charter school network of any financial wrongdoing in relation to its efforts to fight unionization.

Alliance operates 28 middle and high school charters in Los Angeles. Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately managed. Alliance teachers, as in most charters, are not represented by a union. But two years ago, 67 Alliance teachers began advocating to join United Teachers Los Angeles, a move that the charter network fiercely opposed.

As the unionization battle dragged on, it became increasingly contentious.

UTLA officials accused Alliance of intimidating teachers and filed several complaints with California’s Public Employment Relations Board, alleging that the network had violated state laws that allow teachers to organize without fear of reprisal. The union also claimed that the network was using taxpayer dollars to pay for lawyers and public relations consultants to defend itself against the unionizing effort.

But the state audit requested by California’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee found no evidence of misspending or fraud.

Alliance did spend nearly $1 million to fend off unionization, the audit found. But none of that money was taken out of the schools’ budgets, diverted from classrooms or drawn from public funds.

Instead, the charter network relied on private contributions. According to the audit, it raised about $1.7 million from a network of private donors and benefited from another $2 million in pro bono legal work. As of June 2016, Alliance had spent about $915,000 — including $426,000 on consulting fees, $107,000 on legal costs, and $31,000 for flyers and letters to parents and teachers — in fighting unionization.

“We feel vindicated that we are good stewards of the public dollar and that our focus has been, continues to be, and will always be on running great schools,” said Alliance spokesperson Catherine Suitor. “We’re really happy to put this behind us.”

State auditors did find that Alliance didn’t fully comply with federal regulations before it shared parent and alumni contact information with third parties. One of those groups, the California Charter School Assn., used that information in its own public relations campaign against unionization.

On that score, Alliance officials agreed to implement the audit’s recommendations.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said Thursday that the audit showed Alliance and the California Charter School Assn. had “cynically abused the parental information they have.”

“Alliance may be saying this shows that public money hasn’t been used, but the larger issue is that a publicly funded school operator … has spent millions of dollars against their own teachers that should have gone into class-size reduction or school supplies,” Caputo-Pearl said.

Although the audit closes one chapter in the union’s fight to represent charter school teachers, the complaints it lodged with the Public Employment Relations Board remain unresolved.

In late 2015, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Alliance administrators from interfering with efforts to unionize its teachers — an order that still remains in place.

To date, UTLA has not succeeded in convincing a majority of Alliance’s more than 600 teachers to join its ranks. Caputo-Pearl said that more than 200 Alliance teachers support unionization, but he would not give an exact figure.

Union organizers are allowed to be on campuses after school hours.

“They’re literally on our campuses every day,” Suitor said, describing ongoing unionization efforts. “The audit, in my mind, was part of that campaign. UTLA wants to find a smoking gun, and there is none.”