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L.A. officials unexpectedly move to shut down charters implicated in cheating

July 12, 2011 |  6:52 pm

In an unexpected action, Los Angeles school officials Tuesday voted against renewing the operating agreements of two charter schools involved in a cheating scandal last year. The decision could lead to a shutdown of all six schools run by the Crescendo organization.

The vote by the Los Angeles Board of Education was based on the revelation at Tuesday’s meeting that a principal implicated in the cheating scandal had been hired by the outside organization brought in to manage the Crescendo schools. L.A. Unified officials had explicitly directed that no former Crescendo principals could work either for Crescendo or for the Celerity charter organization, the outside group that was brought in.

“This was beyond not following the agreement we had,” said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. “I would use the word 'directly lied to.' "

Celerity Chief Executive Vielka McFarlane said that she hired the principal, Sheryl Lee, before agreeing to manage the Crescendo schools, which are located in South Los Angeles.

“We cannot retroactively go back and terminate an employee over an issue we were not aware of,” McFarlane said in the meeting. She said she hired Lee in March, well before she was invited to manage Crescendo schools.

Deasy was not satisfied.

“If Celerity was unaware they would be the only human beings in L.A. County unaware of the issue,” he responded.

On March 1, officials decided to begin the lengthy revocation process against Crescendo, after allegations circulated that Crescendo founder and executive director John Allen ordered principals and teachers to use actual test questions to prepare students for the 2010 state standardized tests.

Less than a month ago, Deasy indicated he would support keeping the schools open, based on reforms, safeguards and disciplinary actions Crescendo had taken -- including firing Allen. The board was scheduled Tuesday to take up only a long-delayed renewal agreement for two of the Crescendo schools, a vote expected to be almost pro forma.

Instead, the two charters were not renewed and the other four schools face revocation.

The issue over the principal emerged when Crescendo teachers came forward to complain about five-day suspensions for their alleged part in the cheating scandal. The teachers asserted their only role had been to blow the whistle on wrongdoing.

“We’re being penalized for something that we didn’t do,” said Crescendo teacher Sandra Kim.

While arguing against their suspensions, they also criticized Lee’s hiring, which prompted district officials to move against the schools. The district’s action could result in the teachers’ losing their jobs entirely. But they said they would continue to press to keep the schools open under different management.

An attorney and a Crescendo board member said, after the meeting, that Crescendo’s board would probably reimburse any loss suffered by Celerity if it would agree to break its contract with Lee -- if that was necessary to keep the Crescendo schools open.

-- Howard Blume