Backers hit by flak in Biggs

Promoters of a proposed charter high school in Chico face scrutiny for another school they operate

Are the backers of a new charter high school in Chico up to the job?

That’s a question that could be raised in light of developments in Biggs, where they already operate a charter school, the K-12 Oak Hills Academy. At a meeting Feb. 7, the Biggs Unified School District’s Board of Trustees—at the suggestion of interim Superintendent Rick Light—took up the issue of whether the district should consider ending its short relationship with the school.

The reason being that the school had twice failed to present its annual report, due last fall, to the board, and there were concerns about finances.

Oak Hills has been in existence since 2005 and has more than 100 students, though the exact number is unclear. Its chief promoters are Dr. Lee Funk, who was BUSD superintendent when the school formed and became its executive director after retiring from the district after 10 years, and Josh Cook, who has worked primarily for the local Republican Party and party officials.

The BUSD was the subject of scathing criticism in the 2004-05 county grand jury report, which noted, among other things, that “[i]ndifference, ineptitude, or apathy on the part of the superintendent [Funk] and trustees of the school board have led to the current condition of education in Biggs. Their lack of leadership perpetuates a very dysfunctional system.”

At its Feb. 7 meeting, according to a report in the Chico Enterprise-Record, the BUSD board ultimately decided not to begin the process of severing ties with Oak Hills, but only after a lively and somewhat testy exchange.

Oak Hill’s principal, Jill Kahn, warned that the process Light had suggested “would make a costly dialogue between lawyers.” In response, board President Vicki Speegle said mention of lawyers raised a “red flag” for her. She’d heard a similar comment from Cook a couple weeks earlier, she added.

Trustee Michael Felkins, noting that Funk and Cook wanted to start a charter high school in Chico, commented, “They need to take care of business at home before they go somewhere else.” In January, Funk and Cook presented a proposal for a 500-student charter high school to the Chico Unified School District.

The big issue with Oak Hills is finances. The district was concerned that the school’s enrollments had not met projections, so its budget had been out of whack. Since last summer, the BUSD has been handling the school’s business services and had spent hours with Funk and Cook trying to help them with their budget.

Pat Goss, a private financial adviser hired by the county Office of Education to assist the BUSD, told the trustees the charter school had failed to provide the financial information she had requested.

There are also problems with the original memorandum of understanding Funk engineered with the charter school, Rick Light, BUSD’s interim superintendent, told the trustees. It “had holes big enough to drive a Mack truck through,” he reportedly said.

Funk, who was not at the meeting, later expressed disappointment with some of the comments made by the trustees. And he was upset by Light’s suggestion to consider removing Oak Hills from BUSD’s oversight.

“There were statements made [at the meeting] that were inaccurate, based on hearsay and statements based on personal and political agendas,” Funk told the CN&R.

Oak Hills generates revenue that augments the school district’s budget by at least $89,000 a year, he said, adding that he could only “surmise that the statements made essentially to revoke the charter at Oak Hills had to be political.”

In fact, he noted, Oak Hills Principal Jill Kahn had presented a completed audit and an updated “General Plan for Renewal” to the board prior to the meeting. Some of the trustees apparently made their comments before reading the school’s financial report, Funk said.

“We’ll meet or go above our financial obligation,” he continued. “We have a balanced budget this year, something that Biggs Unified does not have. So, I would say, ‘Let’s not worry about Oak Hills; let’s worry about our own problems,’ if I were on the board.”

Funk said he redrew the budget for Oak Hills’ 2006-07 school year. The projected enrollment increased to an average daily attendance of 170, up from the previous year’s 110 average.

According to Kahn, Oak Hills nearly met the projection and is averaging 160 students daily.

Speegle confirmed to the CN&R that the board had received substantial new information from the charter school and would have a full-scale confab at an upcoming meeting.

“We need to sit down with the original MOU,” she said. “There’s some confusion.”

Overall, she said, communication with the school’s directors, Funk and Cook, has been poor. She said she’d called Dr. Funk in an effort to obtain information, but hasn’t heard back. “I don’t understand the chain of command there.”

Efforts to reach interim Superintendent Light were unsuccessful.