The Tuolumne County Board of Education unanimously denied the renewal of a five-year charter for Sonora charter school Foothill Leadership Academy Monday evening, bringing out a bitter tirade from the school’s founder and parents.

“You just don’t care, you’re another politician,” said charter school founder Ian McVey to Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Cathy Parker after the decision. “You should all be ashamed.”

Foothill Leadership Academy (FLA) is a K-8 charter-on-appeal school from the Soulsbyville School District. It is located on Susan Way in East Sonora and their five-year charter expires on June 30, 2019.

The board voted 7-0 to deny the charter petition renewal, with one board member, Casey Littleton, absent.

Just after the decision was announced, the crowd of charter school parents, students and administrators shouted out loud and in unison, “we belong to the academy, the Foothill Leadership academy.”

Parents yelled as they exited the room, “go spend some time in the public schools, it’s a shame” and “we’re moving out of the county” and “you’re all on notice.”

Ian Morcott, board president, said the violations provided in the denial recommendation were too overwhelming to ignore in place of family support.

“It’s sad we’re at this position where there’s been a pattern of behavior,” said Morcott said. “It’s not just what has been expressed here that the kids love it. You have to make sure that the business operates too.”

The denial recommendation said FLA’s violations were extensive and ranged from multiple violations of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the county and the charter, it’s inability to meet academic benchmarks, and financial mismanagement. In a 30-minute statement, Scott Holbrook, a lawyer hired by the county to review the charter petition identified many of the points individually.

“I’ll be frank with you, members of the board. I’ve never seen this before. This is very concerning,” Holbrook said. “There is so much in this resolution that cannot be ignored.”

Holbrook said the decision could be appealed to the state, but Emily McVey, a founder of the school, said after the meeting they would not.

Holbrook said when FLA petitioned for a charter in 2013, he recommended they reject it because he did not believe they could meet their obligations.

“I’m making that recommendation again to you this evening, five and a half years later,” he said.

Holbrook argued the county office was required to weigh their responsibility for providing public money for their projected $1.3 million dollar budget in 2019-20 school year.

Prior to the meeting, a crowd of FLA students and parents waited outside of the building. When they took their seats inside of the Sonora High School library, the room was almost completely filled with people. Some students held up homemade signs that said “Put kids first,” “We are the lions,” and “We ‘heart’ FLA.”

Emily McVey derided the denial resolution as “inaccurate and incomplete.”

“I want you to know I recognize there have been mistakes,” she said. “We’ve learned from them and corrected those missteps.”

McVey repeated a refrain of “we were so busy” — describing the school’s obligations to student needs, community events and county requests — as a reason why there were so many violations identified in the resolution.

“This resolution only includes one side of the story,” she said. “Education is not a one size fits all.”

Shawn Price, a FLA board member, asked the board to recognize the supporters in the room as an indication of the school’s commitment to their enrollees.

“The resolution fails to accurately present the schools solid capacity to complete its vision and mission,” he said.

More than a half-dozen people, the majority of speakers, spoke in solidarity and with support for FLA.

Enrique Torres, a representative of the CA Charter School Association in the Central Valley, urged the board to delay their decision and allow FLA staff to remedy concerns about the petition.

“The decision is a political one, it’s very subjective,” he said. “Give the school the opportunity to remedy the petition to a point that is agreeable to everybody.”

The denial recommendation said at least seven times FLA violated the terms of the MOU during its nearly five-years of operation. The MOU governs FLA’s relationship with the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Office and the Tuolumne County Board of Education and outlines its academic, financial and operational obligations. Any single violation can result in a revocation of the school’s charter by the county board of education.

The county recorded two new MOU violations in March related to special education services and the discovery that 11 charter school employees were paid as independent contractors.

Blaine Cowick, Executive Director of the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) with the county education office, said in a letter to FLA on March 10 that the county was open to litigation because special education students did not have professional assessments supervised by a credentialed special education teacher.

The denial recommendation said a special education teacher lived out of state and provided guidance via video and telephone in the 2017-18 school year. A paraprofessional provided instruction to special needs students without supervision during the 2018-19 school year.

On March 12, the county issued a notice of non-compliance to FLA, alleging four certificated employees and seven non-certificated employees were paid as independent contractors, but were identified as employees on employment agreements. The county office said the incorrect designations appeared to be an attempt to circumvent retirement contribution obligations, with at least one of the employees electing to participate in STRS, the state teacher’s retirement system.

The county and FLA have held an ongoing dispute related to retirement contributions. FLA did not make STRS contributions until after January 2018, when they were issued a notice of non-compliance by the county in Oct. 2017.

FLA sought to have the violation stricken from their record, arguing a revised MOU allowed them the flexibility to provide retirement benefits outside of STRS. The county said the MOU was never revised and FLA has no authority to provide an alternative plan to STRS.

The failure to provide those contributions was estimated at a financial liability of over $400,000, which was not included in the FLA budget or multi-year projections, the document said.

The document also said the school three times failed to notify the county they received loans, from Charter School Capital Loan on June 11, 2014 and June 17, 2014, and from the FLA Parent Teacher Organization on Jan. 8, 2018.

FLA was notified on Oct. 10, 2017, they failed to make timely payment of six past-due invoices to the county in the amount of $42,308.08. FLA also asked for this violation to be stricken from the record, claiming they received an extension from the Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Rico. The document said the allowance for the bills to be paid late did not mean they were not considered late by county.

Also in regards to budget, the county alleged FLA misused public funds between 2016 and 2018 by spending more than $12,242.56 on food and alcohol during staff appreciation meals at restaurants such as the The Standard Pour in East Sonora and the Seven Sisters Restaurant at Black Oak Casino Hotel and Resort. FLA said the meals were funded through private contributions, but the funds were mixed with public monies in the charter school’s business accounts.

In academics, the county said FLA inflated it’s academic achievements by relying on an alternative testing data service which did not correlate with the testing service used by other Tuolumne County public schools.

California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) scores for FLA in 2018 showed 52.24 percent of students meeting or exceeding English/language arts (ELA) standards and 40.3 percent of students meeting or exceeding math standards. The denial recommendation said the school committed to 70 percent in both subjects in their original charter petition.

According to the denial document for comparable schools, FLA fell behind Sonora Elementary School and Twain Harte Elementary School in both metrics, but above Soulsbyville Elementary School and Curtis Creek Elementary School.

The denial recommendation also said the school underperformed in academics in California assessments in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Ian McVey, Emily’s husband, resigned from his position as school director in July 2018 and was replaced by Colleen Applegate, who is also a teacher at the school. Ian McVey cited a deteriorating relationship with the county as the reason for his departure.

Former Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin, who levied many of the MOU violations against the charter school, ended her term in office after she was elected to the Yosemite Community College District board at the end of 2018.

Emily McVey said in February that FLA had 105 students.

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

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