Horizon Charter School faces board vote amid complaints

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 - 11:12 pm

The fate of Horizon Charter School and its 2,700 students is in the hands of Western Placer Unified's school board after allegations of fiscal mismanagement and complaints from parents.

Trustees will decide tonight whether to renew the charters of Horizon Charter School and Partnerships for Student-Centered Learning – public non-tuition programs run by the Horizon charter network.

Western Placer officials have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of fielding complaints since Horizon abruptly closed a Rocklin school site and ended an Accelerated Learning Program at its Lincoln site last year.

Horizon Charter School serves students in Placer, El Dorado and Sacramento counties. It has home schooling and independent study programs, as well as a site-based Montessori school in Lincoln. Other programs for middle and high school students are held at learning centers three days a week.

Jay Carey was among a group of parents who asked the Western Placer school board to remove Horizon's board and top administrators.

Parents of 390 students at the Rocklin school were outraged when they received less than a week's notice to either use Horizon's home-school option or find their children another school.

Carey said Horizon officials lied to county officials about the type of program being held at the Rocklin site, spent $800,000 on tenant improvements before walking away from the site and made parents believe they were looking for a new school location when they were not.

Despite these complaints, renewal seems likely. Western Placer Unified staff is recommending approval and Horizon Superintendent Craig Heimbichner expects "a complete renewal."

"This will be a different relationship," Western Placer Superintendent Scott Leaman said.

After complaints from parents and a critical audit, district officials have decided to become more involved in the running of the charter network, he said.

Horizon's board voted last week to pay the school district about $160,000 next school year for "technical assistance," Heimbichner said, noting that specifics have yet to be fleshed out.

The assistance is likely to consist of professional development that could include training educators to teach to the new Common Core State Standards, as well as sharing resources to help Horizon develop curriculum and intervention strategies, Heimbichner said.

He said he didn't feel the contract was a condition of charter approval. "Moving forward, we have to be fair to them and frankly, they have good resources," he said.

Western Placer's leadership delayed considering approval of Horizon's charters in April, opting to wait until June so they could thoroughly review the applications and a 22-page external audit, Leaman said.

"We've done a lot of work on this," he said. "This is not a rubber stamp on their last petition.

The district took special note of the audit by Teresa R. Ryland School Business Consulting that was commissioned by Horizon in the wake of public outcry about the school closure.

The audit showed that the charter system lacked financial oversight. It detected vacation payouts to a "select group" of employees that violated school policies, as well as long, expensive and possibly illegal leases.

The audit said the leases came with unnecessary legal and management fees and levels of prepayments and deposits that could be illegal. The leases were signed by the former chief business official without Horizon board approval even though the annual lease amount totaled more than $550,000, according to the report.

"Obligating a local education agency for long-term payments should not be taken lightly and should, at a minimum, involve open disclosure and public board discussion so that all parties are aware of the long-term commitment," said the audit.

Despite the high cost of leases, the charter school network has a budget surplus for the next two years, according to the audit. The school has lost only about 300 students since 2007-08, when the school boasted 3,000 students, the audit said.

The charter school is making changes in its procedures to address some of the issues in the audit. Heimbichner said the Horizon board is now "hyper-vigilant" and staff members are bringing all expenditures to the board for approval.

The charter school system also seems to be returning to its roots, focusing on distance learning instead of classroom learning and offering more virtual or online courses, Heimbichner said.

PLACER UNIFIEDWESTERN PLACER UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF TRUSTEES

What: Regular meeting, includes discussion/action of Horizon charter petition renewal

Where: Lincoln High School, Performing Arts Theater, 790 J St., Lincoln

When: Tonight. Open session begins at 7 p.m.

More information: www.wpusd.k12.ca.us/documents/ School%20Board/archive%2013/061813%20Agenda.pdf

Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Diana Lambert



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