A Sonora-area charter school dogged by accusations of misconduct has submitted a petition for the renewal of their five-year charter.

Foothill Leadership Academy (FLA) founder Emily McVey said her hope is for the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office to look past their previously contentious relationship and approve the charter for another five-year term.

“It's all in the past. I kind of like it when another school goes through a financial trial, they do what they are supported going forward. We hope that it's the same for FLA,” McVey said.

McVey added the school was proactive in remedying concerns about the its fiscal solvency, academic performance and misuse of public funds for food and alcohol during staff appreciation meals.

“It's not like the school spent its entire five years full of challenges and hurdles and strife and tensions. It's really all about perspective,” she said.

McVey, the lead petitioner for the charter, was previously director of development at the school but left her paid position last year, she said.

Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Cathy Parker said a public hearing on Monday will initiate a review process, which will culminate in a decision by the Tuolumne County Board of Education at a meeting on April 1.

Foothill Leadership Academy is a K-8 charter-on-appeal school, located on Susan Way in East Sonora. The charter expires on June 30, 2019.

Parker’s office will submit a recommendation to the board that gauges the school’s compliance with a memorandum of understanding (MOU), the document that governs the school’s relationship with the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office and the Tuolumne County Board of Education, and the school’s past academic, financial and operational performance.

“We want to make sure we are making an unbiased and evidence-based evaluation. The evidence speaks for itself so our recommendation will be based on the evidence that has been provided,” Parker said. “We are pouring through it with a fine tooth comb.”

Parker said she would have “no preconceived notions,” despite the school’s five violations of noncompliance since 2014 and the accusation that they misused public funds between 2016 and 2018 by spending more than $12,000 on food and alcohol during staff appreciation meals.

The MOU violations included not notifying the county office that the school had secured loans, had not made California State Teachers Retirement (STRS) contributions until January 2018, and for failing to make timely payment of more than $42,000 in oversight fees and special education fees owed to the county.

The meals included payments of $8,891 during the 2016-17 school year and $3,351 during a portion of the 2017-18 school year for food and alcohol at staff appreciation meals.

The payments include a $784 bill from The Standard Pour Restaurant in East 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 in alcohol purchases including cider, beer and wine.

In July, former school director Ian McVey denied any wrongdoing and said more than $25,000 was fundraised by the school and used for the meals. Public and private funds were previously included in the same bank account, but they were seperated after the accusations, he said.

The county did not seek the disciplinary action of revoking the schools charter as a result of the violations.

Ian McVey, Emily’s husband, resigned from his position in July 2018 and was replaced by Colleen Applegate, who is also a teacher at the school.

In July 2018, Ian McVey cited the deteriorating relationship of FLA with the county office before the anticipated charter renewal as his reason for leaving the position.
“I think back in July we hired new leadership with the express intent of trying to change the narrative,” Emily McVey said.

Since Ian McVey’s departure, former Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin ended her term in office. She was elected to the board of the Yosemite Community College District in 2018.

Emily McVey characterized the STRS violation as a “non-issue” and said the state was not holding the school liable for not making the contributions.

Emily McVey said she would anticipate addressing the violations during a presentation to the county board on March 11.

“I’ll say this is what was done to address the allegations, this where we are at now,” she said. “Let’s give FLA the same support because it's the children that need that support.”

Emily McVey added the school has improved academic scores to higher than the county average in math and English/language arts.

According to 2016-17 state testing data for the nine K-8 elementary schools in the county, Foothill Leadership Academy previously had the second largest percentage of students falling below the English/language arts and math standard.

According to their charter petition, the school has improved scores to the third highest scoring K-8 school in math and English/language arts.

The school has also had to make significant budget cuts this year due to a loss of more than 20 students in the first month of the school year, which Emily McVey said was the result of the uncertainty surrounding the charter renewal process.

“People don't know what to expect,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure they understand this is part of the process.”

FLA has 105 students, she said.

Some of the cuts came from classified staff, to stipends for employees not using a school-provided health plan, and fewer field trips. The cuts were expected to hit the budget in the spring, but the peremptory cuts projected a positive fund balance at the end of the next year, she said.

A hearing to gauge public support for Foothill Leadership Academy from parents, school staff members and community members will be held at the Sonora High School library at 4:15 p.m. Monday.

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