Financial records obtained by The Times show that, as Celerity’s CEO, [Vielka McFarlane] paid for many of these expenses with a credit card belonging to her charter schools, which receive the bulk of their funding from the state.”
– Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2017
When LAUSD denied two Celerity charter renewals in October LAUSD Charter School Division (CSD) Director José Cole-Gutiérrez was quoted as saying that they had “severe concerns with regard to their lack of transparency. We are not even clear who the board members are.” Since then, the FBI and other federal agents have raided the offices of Celerity Educational Group “collecting laptops and copying data from computers”. The Los Angeles Times has also written two exposés on the publicly funded private schools that included charges that Celerity provided “few school supplies but [held] a lavish party” and the CEO, who was paid $471,842, paid for extravagant “expenses with a credit card belonging to her charter schools”. All this was not enough to stop the District from offering Celerity co-location space at Arminta Street Elementary School under Proposition 39.
At a parent meeting on Thursday morning to discuss this proposed co-location, Cole-Gutiérrez explained away his department’s offering of the site by claiming that the law does not allow him to use the existence of the investigation to reject Celerity’s request for space. However, this ignores the fact that the CSD has already used information that it has collected to recommend against the approval of two new Celerity charters along with the renewals that were rejected in October. In all of these cases, the concerns extended beyond the individual school sites to include the charter management organization that runs them. Since all of the Celerity run schools are tainted, it is clear that instead of working to find Celerity new facilities, the District should have been putting its efforts into shutting these charters down.
The parents of Arminta have organized themselves to fight the co-location at their public school and were well prepared for the meeting. They pushed to find out how much work the CSD had put into verifying that Celerity actually had enough potential students to meet the need for additional co-located space but they were not given the information that they requested. During his presentation, Cole-Gutiérrez did say that the fact that Celerity was already operating under the same charter at Sun Valley Middle School met the requirement for presenting “meaningfully interested students.” However, these estimates were presented in November, before the FBI raids or the stories in the Times, which are likely to severely affect new enrollments. Parents also seemed dissatisfied with the District’s answer to how Celerity can operate at two different school sites that are more than a mile apart and still be considered one school operating under a single charter.
The District seemed woefully unprepared to answer questions about how the co-location would be integrated into
the school site. When a parent asked which bathrooms would be used by the charter students, her question went unanswered by District staff. Another community member reminded them that they had not answered the question, but it was sidestepped again. Questions about the playground, library, and an already overwhelmed cafeteria were also ignored. The District staff couldn’t even agree if three or four classrooms would be taken over by the charter.
The one piece of good news to come out of the meeting was that Celerity is not currently interested in accepting the LAUSD’s offer of space. However, this will only give the school a respite for a year. Since the District has determined that the school has “available space”, this community may find itself battling another parasite next year.
Carl Petersen is a parent and special education advocate and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD’s District 2 School Board race. He was endorsed by Network for Public Education (NPE) Action and Diane Ravitch called him a “strong supporter of public schools.” His past blogs can be found at www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com.