The Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools has alleged that a Sonora charter school misused public funds between 2016 and 2018 by spending more than $12,000 on food and alcohol during staff appreciation meals and “staff synergy breakfasts.”

Administrators for Foothill Leadership Academy, a K-8 charter-on-appeal school located on Susan Way in East Sonora, disagreed that the funds were improperly used because they came from private donations, and charter schools are exempt from prohibitions on certain purchases.

In a statement to Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin and the Tuolumne County Board of Education on Monday night, Foothill Leadership Academy Director of Development and Community Outreach Emily McVey described a “clear pattern of misunderstanding” on the part of the county office about the breadth of their regulatory oversight of the school.

“We do not agree the money spent was a ‘misuse or improper expenditure of public monies,’ ” stated a letter drafted by the Foothill Leadership Academy Board of Directors, which referenced “approximately $15,000” in privately raised funds” used for purposes as student and staff enrichment, which is not limited to showing appreciation.”

The county schools office requisitioned payment information of a credit card linked to the Foothill Leadership Academy general fund after discovering the existence of the card over three months ago during a review of the school’s monthly cash flow, Bulkin said.

The county office discovered payments to restaurants for food and alcohol in the amount of $8,891.19 for the 2016-17 school year and $3,351.37 during a portion of the 2017-18 school year.

The payments include a $784.56 bill from The Standard Pour Restaurant in Sonora on February 10, 2017, and a $770 bill from Seven Sisters Restaurant at Black Oak Casino Hotel and Resort on June 9, 2017.

The bills include, in total, $204.75 in alcohol purchases including cider, beer and wine.

The meals were “excessive and inappropriate,” Bulkin said, and thousands of dollars in additional meals had been acquired from “every restaurant in town.”

“This is not acceptable and I can not, or will not, turn the other cheek and be convinced that this is appropriate behavior by school officials, and these are public school officials,” she said. “Tell me what part of buying alcohol with school money sounds legitimate?”

Appropriate expenditures only applied to costs that will “directly and tangibly benefit the education of students within the school,” a letter to Foothill Leadership Academy from Bulkin said.
Those expenditures include school furniture, supplies and equipment; instructional materials such as textbooks; salaries, uniforms for school programs and athletics, cap and gowns for graduation, maintenance, and awards, among other items.

Meals of appreciation, with no provided evidence to properly legitimize the purchases, were instead a gift of personal benefit to the staff, Bulkin said.

Credit card purchases from the 2014-15 school year, the 2015-16 school year and the remainder of the 2017-2018 school year have not been provided to the county office, she said.

Foothill Leadership Academy employs six full-time credentialed teachers, a physical education teacher, six aides, a reading interventionist, and has about 143 K-8 students enrolled.

At the county board meeting on Monday, McVey argued charter schools were exempt from prohibitions on the purchase of alcohol with public funds and specific passages of California Education Code due to the “mega waiver,” a section of education code that governs charter school exemptions.

Emily McVey and her husband, Ian McVey, school director, were unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Bulkin said the mega waiver does not address the purchase of alcohol and noted criminal charges have been brought against public school officials for the misuse of public funds in past California court cases.
“It's a rebuke of the ‘anything goes’ mentality that Emily seems to also espouse,” Bulkin said.

But despite Foothill Leadership Academy’s denial of inappropriate expenditures, its Board of Directors has taken steps to signal compliance with the county schools office.

“At the end of the day, in a sense, any charter school is at the mercy of their authorizer,” said Tom Michols, executive vice president of Client Services with CSMC, the company that provides “back-office” services for Foothill Leadership Academy.

Nichols spoke at the county meeting on Monday and advocated for a collaborative solution between Foothill Leadership Academy and the county office.

“A charter school can choose to ignore it, blow it off, or say we want to fix it moving forward. What is the other alternative for the charter school at this point?”
In its letter to the county Board of Education, Foothill Leadership Academy committed to assigning $5,116 raised at its fourth annual Art Showcase and Gala on May 19, as well as $4,669 from a $10,000 gift by the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization, back to the school fund for repayment of the taxpayer dollars expended with school-issued credit cards.

The school would also open another bank account “to ensure privately raised funds are accounted for separately from other monies” and indicate to donors the “purpose and potential use of funds.”

Previously, the school did not make a distinction between the private fundraising dollars and the public monies which comprised their available school monies.

Bulkin said that the effort by the board was admirable, but still about $2,500 short of “making whole” the total expenditures on food and alcohol.

“I’m only criticizing that they haven't returned $2,500 in public money and have not given the other documents we’ve asked for,” she said.

But the most important component of signalling compliance, said Foothill Leadership Academy Board Chair Kelly Bressel, is the renewal of the school’s charter, which expires on June 30, 2019.

Foothill Leadership Academy is in its fourth year of a five-year charter and has the opportunity to submit a petition to the county education board to renew the charter after Aug. 1.

“I don't think there was any malice involved. I wasn't there. You're ordering a meal, you're ordering a drink. I do know in the future it's going to cause for there to be some policies put in place. There is not anything in the policies to say there are certain exemptions for purchases with the school credit card,” Bressel said.

Foothill Leadership Academy will also inquire with families about voluntarily made payments for field trips during the 2016-17 school year, and will provide refunds if necessary.

Bulkin identified in her letter to the school that none of the field trip flier during the 2016-17 school year specified that the activities were free of charge, a requirement of the “free and public” statute of education.

The county Board of Education did not take disciplinary action against Foothill Leadership Academy Monday night, and can only choose to revoke the school’s charter or not renew the charter after the 2018-19 school year.

The most recent allegations against Foothill Leadership Academy come after a year of a contentious relationship with the county office, which has expressed concerns about the school’s fiscal solvency.

The school has registered five individual violations of noncompliance with the memorandum of understanding, a document which governs the school’s relationship with the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office and the Tuolumne County Board of Education, since its inception in 2014.

Foothill Leadership Academy failed to notify the county office three times that they had secured loans; the school did not make California State Teachers Retirement (STRS) contributions until January 2018; and it failed to make timely payment of more than $42,000 in oversight fees and special education bill-back fees owed to the county.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.