Former L.A. charter school leader fined for conflict of interest

Former L.A. charter school leader fined for conflict of interest

A former local charter school operator has agreed to pay a $16,000 fine for misconduct that includes using public education funds to lease her own buildings.

Under a tentative settlement with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, Kendra Okonkwo acknowledges that she improperly used her official position “to influence governmental decisions in which she had a financial interest,” according to documents posted Monday by the state agency.

The settlement or “stipulation” notes two instances of wrongdoing: establishing leases for the school in two buildings that Okonkwo owned and arranging for public funds to pay for renovations to these structures.

The school, Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists, lost its charter to operate and closed last year.

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“In this matter, Okonkwo engaged in a pattern of violations in which she made, used or attempted to use her official position to influence governmental decisions involving real property in which she had a significant financial interest,” the commission said.

Okonkwo declined to comment, but the commission cited several factors for not imposing a larger fine, including that “Okonkwo understands the seriousness of the violations and accepts responsibility for her actions.”

The South Los Angeles school, which opened in 2006, had been targeted by regulators for several years.

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The violations cited this week by the state date from 2010 and 2011, when Okonkwo earned a total of $223,615 as the elementary school’s executive director. She also received about $19,000 a month in rent from the school. She attempted to eliminate the appearance of conflict by assigning the property to a new, separate corporation, for which her mother signed the leases. But the arrangement did not pass legal muster, according to the state.

The other violation pertains to Okonkwo signing contracts for school-funded renovations worth $62,000. Okonkwo addressed this conflict by resigning as executive director. Someone else then signed the renovation contract.

Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. Wisdom Academy began under the jurisdiction of the L.A. Unified School District, which refused to renew the school after its initial five-year charter expired.

A report to the school board cited “serious concerns pertaining to violations of conflict-of-interest laws against self-dealing on the part of the school’s executive director as well as insufficient governance by the … board of directors.”

The L.A. Unified action did not close the school because, under state law, a charter can appeal to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which chose to take over as the supervising agency.

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But the county office eventually turned against the school as well, revoking its charter in 2014, and leading to its shutdown at the end of the last school year.

The county cited a report by state auditors, who concluded that administrators may have funneled millions in state funds to Okonkwo, her relatives and close associates.

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Some of the allegations bordered on the bizarre.

Auditors questioned, for example, the use of school funds to pay a $566,803 settlement to a former teacher who sued the organization for wrongful termination after she was directed by Okonkwo to travel with her to Nigeria to marry Okonkwo’s brother-in-law for the purpose of making him a United States citizen.

The organization’s payment of the settlement was inappropriate because Okonkwo was not acting within the scope of her school employment, auditors concluded.

The school took its fight to survive all the way to the state board of education.

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In papers filed with the state, Wisdom’s leaders accused auditors and the county office of misconduct and “open hostility … against this African American operated school,” calling it “the culmination of years of unfair treatment and retaliation … because a few [county office] staff members dislike our school’s founder Kendra Okonkwo, her family, the thickness of her accent, and the color of her skin.”

State officials declined to overrule the charter revocation.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume 

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