On the last day of school at Irvine International Academy, families were greeted with parties, end-of-the-year fun, and some breaking news: The principal had been fired.
It was the latest controversy in a list of many for a charter school that opened less than one year ago.
Irvine International Academy (IIA) offers more than 300 elementary-age students a free Mandarin-immersion program — something long sought after by many in Irvine where 43.6% of the population is of Asian descent.
But parents and teachers say the public elementary charter school that opened its doors on Aug. 19, 2021, has been mismanaged.
The Orange County Department of Education agrees there are problems.
Since last year, the OCDE has sent three “letters of concern” in addition to other correspondence requesting corrective actions.
The latest letter, dated May 2, highlighted seven issues regarding IIA’s school governance, fiscal management, and fulfillment of the conditions, standards, and procedures set forth in its charter petition.
IIA, OCDE officials said, failed to adopt a conflict of interest code, co-mingled or blended funds, and didn’t abide by its anti-nepotism policy. (Founder and former executive director Michael Scott had hired his son to work at the school.)
Other concerns raised by OCDE included: Parents were charged for an after-school program that under the law should be free, and two school board members did not properly disclose their financial interests on the required statement of economic interest forms.
In a March letter, the OCDE detailed what it found to be Brown Act violations (such as the timely posting of board agendas and making public documents available for inspection) as well as a failure to train all staff on how to spot and report child abuse, a requirement by law.
And in December, the OCDE said the school violated California law because its nonprofit status, listed under Western Mandarin Immersion Charter, was revoked by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
IIA says it’s working to fix problems
School administrators, particularly new interim executive director Edward Watson, have been working with the OCDE to correct and fix the violations, said Aracely Chastain, the county’s director of charter schools.
For example, the school board adopted a conflict of interest code, a uniform complaint procedure, and a salary schedule for its teaching staff; it is also looking for a new vendor to operate its after-school program, Chastain said.
The school regained its nonprofit status retroactively, she said, and the former executive director’s son is no longer employed at the school.
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“While we understand the school has the intention to follow their policies and all applicable laws, we strongly encourage the school to develop internal standard operating procedures to ensure compliance, train all board members and relevant staff on the school’s financial and conflict of interest policies, and complete comprehensive Brown Act training to prevent issues of non-compliance from occurring in the future,” Chastain said during an Orange County Board of Education meeting earlier this month.
“There are additional areas of concern that we are currently monitoring,” she said.
The school, for example, has not addressed the concern that it charged families last year for an after-school program and enrichment classes that, according to OCDE officials, “appear to be educational activities” and “an integral, fundamental part of education” at the school.
And while IIA’s employee handbook mandates staff are to receive training on how to report suspected child abuse within the first six months of the year, only 19 of 66 staff members had completed it by mid-December, according to the OCDE.
By March, it was up to 47 employees.
“That was concerning to us. We had multiple conversations, notices, emails, phone calls regarding this issue, and it took them a while to get all their employees trained,” Chastain said.
Watson, a former IIA school board member who stepped down to take on the role of interim director, maintained that “children are loving the school.” Watson recently told the Board of Education he expects it will grow to more than 400 students in the fall, when the school adds sixth grade.
In a brief interview this week, Watson referred most questions to the former executive director and said, “The school is doing the best it can to satisfy everyone.”
IIA’s leadership in limbo
Meanwhile, the school’s leadership “remains in flux,” Chastain said.
On June 7, the school board voted 4-2 in closed session to “seek an amicable separation agreement” with principal Steven Chuang who had been on leave since April.
Parents had an inkling of what was coming and addressed the school board before they went into closed session. Most spoke strongly in support of Chuang.
“Absolutely nothing shocks me about this school anymore,” parent Donna Lea said. “My heart hurts to see you hurt an innocent person who you just used to get the school started. … It simply disgusts me. He does not deserve this.”
Another parent argued: “What this really boils down to is a vendetta against Principal Chuang.”
Chuang declined to be interviewed for this story.
As for Scott, the founder and former executive director, he was placed on paid administrative leave in March.
Scott did not respond to requests for an interview.
Chastain said OCDE officials “remain greatly concerned regarding the lack of action by the IIA governing board on the employment of Dr. Michael Scott as it pertains to the potential gift of public funds.”
Scott’s annual salary is $210,600, which includes a $2,600 stipend for his advanced degrees.
“Although no formal report has been given by the school as to the reason for Dr. Scott’s leave, our understanding from the IIA board president is that he’s on leave pending the renegotiation of his role with the school and a new employment contract,” Chastain said. “Dr. Scott has rejected the role of director of development. Our understanding from the board president is that the issue is Dr. Scott’s requirement that his role provides him with full (California teachers’ retirement credit).”
“We strongly encourage the school to settle the role of Dr. Scott or also move to negotiate an amicable separation of employment as soon as possible,” Chastain said.
As Chastain told Orange County trustees last April: “Irvine International Academy has two executive directors on the payroll.”
Parents weigh in
For months, IIA parents have contacted both the OCDE and streamed into county Board of Education meetings to express frustration and ask for help.
Some parents showed up to back the school, and its administrators, and emphasized their children are happy and learning Mandarin in the dual immersion program.
“They love that school,” said parent Felipe Delgado. “No matter how well you plan, there are always things that come up that have to be addressed. You know, mistakes are made. The board is working towards fixing those mistakes.”
But other parents said they were removing their children from the school.
“I pulled them out at the six-month mark,” parent Lynn Hwang told trustees in April.
“It was a very, very tough decision,” Hwang said. “But as you know, there was just so much going on. Teachers were not happy. Parents were not happy — nepotism, exclusive contracts, and a lot of internal conflict.”
Parent Annie Lin didn’t wait for school to end either. She pulled her daughter from the school’s kindergarten class in April.
“I couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Lin told the Register. “I didn’t want her to fall behind. The teachers did the best they could with what they had, starting a new school. But there was a lot of drama. The principal wasn’t getting support from the board. It was, ‘Hey, pick a side, pick a side,’ when all the teachers wanted to do was just teach.”
The school has six English teachers and six Chinese-language teachers who split topics like science and math. Students in transitional kindergarten through fifth-grade classes spend half their day learning in English and the other half learning in Chinese.
In February, the Mandarin-language teachers wrote a letter to the school board to voice their “concerns and frustrations about our employment at IIA and to demand change.”
The teachers said they did not feel supported by the school administration, which they alleged “has fostered an unprofessional and unequitable working environment creating a hostile work environment for the Mandarin teachers.”
In a March survey of 238 families, conducted by the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, 73% said they were looking at other options for the coming year but were holding a spot at IIA “to see if changes are being made.”
The school conducted a second survey, at the request of the Board of Education, that also showed most have little confidence in the school board or Scott’s leadership; a majority showed a high confidence level in the principal.
Of 154 responses, a handful said they were pulling their kids out. But only 22.7% of the parents said they planned to return to the school while 32.5% said they “might return,” and 43.5% said they “might leave.”
IIA falls under the umbrella of the OCDE after its original petition was denied by Riverside Unified and Irvine Unified school districts. Charter schools denied by their home districts can appeal to the Board of Education. The board typically approves such petitions, but it also initially denied IIA before ultimately approving it in January 2021.
Elected officials split on IIA
At the most recent Board of Education meeting, Trustees Ken Williams, Mari Barke, and Lisa Sparks voiced support for the school and the efforts it’s making.
“I hear great things about your school,” Barke told Watson. “There’s a growing pain with anything new.”
Beckie Gomez, the only board member who voted against the school’s petition last year, was the lone person on the dais to question the school’s governance and actions.
“I’m greatly concerned for those children that are enrolled in this school, that their education may be compromised,” Gomez said, “because there are so many different things going on that are taking away the focus from educating our kids because the adults in the room can’t pull it together.”
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