Donors step up to save char­ter schools

Los Angeles Times - - Latextra - Howard Blume

A group of the city’s lead­ing phi­lan­thropists, in­clud­ing bil­lion­aire Eli Broad and for­mer mayor Richard Rior­dan, ral­lied Mon­day to save ICEF Pub­lic Schools, one of the nation’s largest and most suc­cess­ful char­ter school com­pa­nies, which was tee­ter­ing on fi­nan­cial in­sol­vency.

ICEF, which op­er­ates 15 schools in low-in­come mi­nor­ity neigh­bor­hoods of Los An­ge­les, was vir­tu­ally out of cash, un­likely to meet its Oct. 1 pay­roll. The non­profit faced a $2-mil­lion deficit in the cur­rent bud­get year as well as sub­stan­tial longterm debt.

The col­lapse of ICEF would have been a blow to the char­ter move­ment and to the 4,500 stu­dents and sev­eral hun­dred em­ploy­ees of an or­ga­ni­za­tion whose re­sults have im­pressed many ob­servers. Char­ters are in­de­pen­dently run pub­lic schools that are free from many reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern tra­di­tional schools.

ICEF rep­re­sen­ta­tives and oth­ers said the group’s bud­get prob­lems were caused by in­suf­fi­cient re­serves; an overly am­bi­tious ex­pan­sion — 11 new schools in three years — that re-


sulted in costly debt; and a re­luc­tance to make cuts af­fect­ing stu­dents. These fac­tors were ex­ac­er­bated by the re­ces­sion, which sharply re­duced state fund­ing to schools, and this year’s late state bud­get, which has de­layed pay­ments to schools.

The res­cue plan that emerged Mon­day was less dis­rup­tive than one un­der dis­cus­sion as re­cently as Sun­day. That plan would have bro­ken up ICEF, dis­trib­uted schools and stu­dents among other char­ter schools and forced out founder Mike Pis­cal.

In­stead, Pis­cal will re­main to over­see aca­demic pro­grams. But he’ll now re­port to new part-time chief ex­ec­u­tive Caprice Young, a for­mer L.A. school board pres­i­dent who be­came a na­tional force in the char­ter move­ment as head of the Cal­i­for­nia Char­ter Schools Assn.

“I’m thrilled that our sup­port­ers came through when we needed them,” Pis­cal said.

Rior­dan be­comes chair­man of the ICEF board. The new vice chair­man is Carl Cohn, a for­mer schools su­per­in­ten­dent in Long Beach and San Diego.

Rior­dan is con­tribut­ing $100,000; Broad $500,000, and phi­lan­thropist Frank Bax­ter $100,000—jump­start­ing a short-term $3mil­lion cam­paign to sta­bi­lize ICEF. All are long­time sup­port­ers of char­ters and fre­quent crit­ics of the Los An­ge­les Uni­fied School District.

ICEF had tried to limit cuts to arts and ath­letic pro­grams, but it did close one school and con­sol­i­date two oth­ers. And teach­ers are re­port­ing belt-tight­en­ing at school sites. In an in­ter­view, one said that her stu­dents lack suf­fi­cient text­books and that staff also was re­cently cau­tioned not to pho­to­copy from the texts be­cause of a paper short­age.

A teacher in an­other school said that in­struc­tors there were or­dered to cover ad­di­tional classes dur­ing for­mer plan­ning pe­ri­ods to cut down on staffing needs. The teach­ers asked not to be named out of con­cerns for their jobs.

Aca­dem­i­cally, ICEF schools have gen­er­ally de­liv­ered higher test scores than most nearby tra­di­tional schools, in some cases clos­ing the achieve­ment gap that sep­a­rates black and Latino stu­dents from their white and Asian coun­ter­parts. About 71% of ICEF’s African Amer­i­can ele­men­tary stu­dents scored at the “pro­fi­cient” level or bet­ter on stan­dard­ized tests, match­ing the per­for­mance of white stu­dents statewide and sur­pass­ing African Amer­i­can stu­dents statewide by 28 per­centile points.

From its in­cep­tion, ICEF’s clien­tele was al­most ex­clu­sively African Amer­i­can in a re­gion where the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of other pub­lic school stu­dents are Latino.

In re­cent years, how­ever, in­creas­ing num­bers of Latino stu­dents have been en­rolling. Other char­ters also have faced fi­nan­cial strug­gles. Green Dot Pub­lic Schools shut down its An­imo Jus­tice high school at the close of the school year.

Green Dot chief ex­ec­u­tive Marco Petruzzi said his or­ga­ni­za­tion has used re­serves and loans to tide it over un­til the state pro­vides money owed to schools, but he noted that, un­like school dis­tricts, char­ters lack ready ac­cess to low-in­ter­est short­term loans.

Ri­cardo DeAratanha

PAR­ENT: Isa­iah Phillips picks up his daugh­ter, Sarah, 4, from ICEF’s View Park Ele­men­tary School.

Ri­cardo DeAratanha

EN­RICH­MENT: Megan Punch reads to Kennedy Gaines, 5, left; Lea Irons, 5; Sarah Phillips, 4; and Aaliyah Lewis, 6, dur­ing an af­ter-school pro­gram at View Park Ele­men­tary School in South Los An­ge­les, one of the 15 ICEF schools.

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