Trying to get right with LA Unified, El Camino charter school hands down discipline, policy changes

FILE - El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills.
FILE - El Camino Real Charter High School in Woodland Hills.
Patricia Nazario/KPCC

The board of El Camino Real Charter High School has disciplined at least one employee and enacted a long list changes to its financial policies amid questions from Los Angeles Unified School District officials about "seemingly exorbitant, personal and … improper" transactions made using school funds.

Attorneys for the board outlined those actions in their response to a "Notice of Violations" the district issued against the Woodland Hills school last month. The district had asked El Camino's board to respond to the sanctions by last Friday, Sept. 23.

At issue were charges for steak dinners, airline tickets, hotel rooms and car services that ended up on El Camino credit cards. One of these charges even stemmed from El Camino principal Dave Fehte's freelance work as a pro basketball scout, the Los Angeles Daily News reported.

And there were others: charges at Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, sporting good stores and flower shops — transactions that L.A. Unified officials flagged because they were "incurred without scrutiny and proper documentation to show the legitimacy of the transactions."

Issuing a "Notice of Violations" is a serious step — the first of three L.A. Unified's Charter Schools Division would have to take in order to revoke the El Camino's charter.

But recent history shows the division has only taken the second step — issuing a "Notice of Intent to Revoke" — with six schools. Five of those schools are still open today.

The board's "Response to Notice of Violations" letter said some of these charges the district flagged were accidental and have been reimbursed. But others — such as those for volleyball equipment and materials for woodshop class — were legitimate from the beginning, the letter said, criticizing the district for inexactitude in its allegations.

The district's charter schools division "consistently approved of, and, indeed, praised [El Camino] in the financial area during its annual oversight visits," the letter said.

But the board also enacted a host of changes to El Camino's policies in response to L.A. Unified's "Notice of Violations," including requiring a board's approval for all out-of-state travel,  forbidding the purchase of alcohol with school money and demanding that employees document the purpose of every purchase they make with school funds before they make it.

"The person requesting the purchase would … fill out a form basically detailing why they need this, who its for, where they're buying it from, a simple explanation of why they think buying it here is the best place from which to purchase it," said El Camino marketing director Melanie Horton in an . "That would have to be filled out before any purchase on the credit card was made. So really just a better paper trail for the approvals process."

The response also said the school has been fully reimbursed for all "inadvertant personal charges." Fehte reimbursed the school for more than $6,000-worth of expenses incurred over a period of three years, Horton said.

In addition, the board's response points out they'd taken a number of steps before the district handed down its "Notice of Violations." El Camino had contracted with the state's Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team to review the school's financial controls, called in an outside investigator, and revoked all American Express cards from employees.

The response letter said the board had also disciplined an employee or employees in connection with the case. The board handed down that discipline during a closed session of the board, and the letter said "while those actions cannot be shared in this document due to the confidentiality of personnel matters, the board and the employees have authorized disclosure of those actions to the district in a private setting."

But in the interview, Horton at least confirmed the discipline had not got this far: no El Camino employee has been fired.