By Los Angeles Unified School District [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

October 16, 2017; Los Angeles Times

Something is rotten in the world of Los Angeles school board politics.

Partnerships to Uplift Communities (PUC) charter school network founder and L.A. Unified School District Board member (and, until recently, board president) Refugio Rodriguez faces three felony charges, 25 misdemeanor charges, and conflict-of-interest allegations for laundering money in his school board campaigns in 2014 and 2015. Charges were filed last month by the city’s ethics commission.

It might seem unusual that a charter school founder (and recent employee) would head the school board for a major city’s public K-12 system, but this was no accident. Rodriguez was part of a slate, “one of four board members who came into power with the strong backing of charter school supporters and who now make up a majority of the seven-member body.” As Rachel Cohen writes for The Intercept, Rodriguez “was backed by the well-heeled charter school movement, which spent more than $2 million to help elect him. This past spring, education reform advocates won three more seats, giving the board a slim pro-charter majority for the first time ever. Rodriguez was then elected board president in July.” After the ethics charges were filed, Rodriguez stepped down as board president, but remains a school board member.

Then this past Monday, the other shoe dropped and a second investigation was launched. As another Los Angeles Times article explains, “Officials at PUC Schools, a local charter school network, have filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission.”

The filing alleges that Rodriguez, who co-founded PUC, ordered the transfer of about $265,000 from PUC to a nonprofit that appeared to be under his control. An additional $20,000 went to a private company in which he might have owned a stake.

“PUC”, according to the Los Angeles Times, “operates 17 schools in Los Angeles and one in Rochester, N.Y. It is a nonprofit that operates under its own board, with L.A. Unified authorizing its local schools individually.”

Last Friday, PUC accepted the resignation of Rodriguez’s cousin “senior manager Elizabeth Tinajero Melendrez. In PUC records reviewed by the Times, Melendrez is listed as the person who requested eight of the checks Rodriguez authorized, adding up to nearly $188,000.”

As NPQ has reported previously, conflicts of interest, or even the appearances of them, put the entire organization at risk of losing its credibility. Jacqueline Elliott, the cofounder of PUC, has distanced herself from the scandal in the media, perhaps hoping to maintain the reputation of the charter network with funders. (Elliott is not under any investigation.)

A large and complicated web of money and influence has been woven under the feet of Los Angeles’ education leaders. Untangling it will certainly cost the district time and credibility, especially since, as noted above, the balance of the school board recently shifted toward charter school supporters, who strongly supported Rodriguez and who now occupy four of the seven board seats.

Big money and scandal are not, obviously, necessary or even frequent companions to large charter networks. However, when public institutions like education rely heavily on the goodwill and funding of private networks, they open themselves up to the same kinds of risks that other private organizations face. A network with an enormous budget like PUC’s has a responsibility to their donors and their students to keep a tighter eye on their books; lax financial oversight may lead to accusations of other priorities, like the ones Rodriguez is now accused of harboring.—Erin Rubin