Guest opinion: State conflict-of-interest policies need to apply to charter schools

It is time to ensure that public taxpayer dollars spent on the education of students in all schools are allocated by school boards free from financial conflicts of interest.

Current law prohibits school district board members from being financially interested in decisions made by the board, requires members to file a statement of economic interest with the Fair Political Practices Commission (just as we both do as members of the Assembly), prohibits employees of school districts from serving on the board of the district that employs them and requires open, public board meetings. However, none of this protection of our public funds extends to the school boards that administer charter schools.

The conversation about charter school boards and conflict-of-interest policies has continued for years in the Legislature. Now is the time to bring sunshine to charter school boards in the same way that we do for the rest of the public schools in California, by requiring their boards to comply with the same conflict-of-interest and open-meeting laws that apply to school district boards.

Assembly Bill 2115 will place these same uniform protections on charter schools across the state. This bill will soon arrive on the governor’s desk for his consideration, and we urge him to sign the legislation.

News reports of charter school board members engaging in inappropriate financial mismanagement highlight the need for charter school conflict-of-interest laws to be clarified. Audits of several charter schools have found state taxpayer dollars used for inappropriate expenses, including charter school board members staying at luxury hotels while on school business.

Some charter schools even have large contracts with for-profit corporations for everything from business services to curricula, and those corporations are owned by the charter school director or family. One charter school serving students in grades nine through 12, which abruptly closed its doors without notice to students or staff, was found to have redirected more than $12 million in state funding to another organization that was offering training to adults, while charging tuition to its students who, like all students, were entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.”

Charter schools may be run by for-profit corporations or nonprofit corporations. Though there may be advantages to this, in some cases the same board that controls the nonprofit or for-profit corporation also makes all the financial decisions for the school.  With a single board making financial decisions for the corporation and the charter school, these boards are clearly filled with financially interested board members. 

Charter schools are given more autonomy than traditional public schools in order to foster innovation in education. We both support this innovation. However, charter schools, just like all other public schools, should have conflict-of-interest and open-meeting requirements that cast a bright light on the financial decisions that they make, thus preventing the temptation for fraud and making those decisions completely transparent to the taxpayers that fund them.

Gene Mullin is a Democrat from South San Francisco; Bonnie Garcia is a Republican from Cathedral City. Both are members of the state Assembly.

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