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California State Auditor Report Number: 2016-117

Alliance College‑Ready Public Schools
The Nonprofit Did Not Spend Public Funds or Divert Classroom Resources in Response to Unionization Efforts

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Although the Alliance Home Office Spent Nearly $1 Million in Response to Unionization Efforts, It Did Not Use Public Funds for This Purpose

Key Points:


The Alliance Home Office Does Not Comingle Public and Private Funds

A critical reason that Alliance was able to avoid using public funds to pay for its response to the unionization efforts is that it tracks revenue and expense accounts separately for the home office and the charter schools using distinct resource codes with public and private designations. Alliance charter schools receive nearly all of their funding from public sources and, according to our review of the Alliance accounting records, those funds are held in separate accounts for the charter schools. The Alliance home office is a private nonprofit corporation and receives most of its revenue from private contributions and management fees from the Alliance charter schools. These management fees are considered private revenue because, under the administrative service agreement with each of the charter schools, the Alliance home office functions as an independent contractor and charges a management fee for services provided. Any private donations that the home office receives are designated as such and are not comingled with the charter schools’ public funds.

The Alliance Home Office Separately Tracked Expenditures Related to Its Response to Unionization

Within the existing accounting structure just described, Alliance took further steps to ensure that no public funds were spent on its response to the unionization efforts. Specifically, in March 2015, shortly after a group of Alliance teachers and counselors announced their intention to unionize and join UTLA, Alliance created a special account to separately track any expenses related to its unionization response. We found that the Alliance home office either paid all such expenditures directly from the special account or reimbursed entities from that fund for expenditures related to the unionization response.

Although the Alliance home office’s revenue is derived mainly from private grants and contributions and the management fees that its charter schools pay, Alliance created a separate revenue stream for its special account. Beginning in March 2015, the home office solicited and received private donations for the special account and through its network of private donors, it raised more than $1.7 million—sufficient to cover all expenses related to its response to the unionization efforts at its charter schools. As a result, the Alliance home office did not spend public funds on its response.

As of June 2016, Alliance had spent approximately $915,000—including $426,000 in consulting fees and $31,000 for flyers and letters to parents and teachers—in response to the unionization efforts at its charter schools. As shown in Figure 3, the special account’s largest expenditure category was for consulting services, which included payments to communications consultants for messaging, public relations, and outreach.4 Alliance also used the fund to track legal and litigation‑related expenditures. In total, Alliance had spent nearly $107,000 on legal costs by June 2016, but it also received more than $2 million in pro bono legal services to assist in its response to the unionization efforts and subsequent legal proceedings.

The Alliance chief executive officer (Alliance CEO) explained that the special account’s funds were spent, in part, responding to UTLA statements that Alliance deemed incorrect or misleading. For example, Alliance published on its public website a “frequently asked questions” document that gave background on UTLA and described why it believed UTLA was trying to unionize Alliance charter schools. Specifically, Alliance expressed its opinion that UTLA has been funding and supporting efforts to interfere with the freedom and flexibility that charter schools like Alliance have in tailoring programs for the needs of their students. Alliance also produced a document stating the benefits of its charter schools remaining independent and nonunionized to ensure that students receive a high‑quality college preparatory education. The PERB judge ruled in his June 2016 proposed decision that those communications were permissible, although UTLA has appealed that decision.


Figure 3
Alliance Home Office Unionization Expenditures
Fiscal Years 2014–15 and 2015–16 (Combined)

Figure 3 is a pie chart describing the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools home office’s expenditures for its response to the unionization efforts for fiscal years 2014-15 and 2015-16, combined.

Sources: Alliance College‑Ready Charter Schools (Alliance) accounting records.

* Miscellaneous costs include travel expenses, bank charges, and office expenses, among others.
† Legal services does not include $2.2 million Alliance received in pro bono legal services.
‡ We noted that not all of the consulting costs reported in the special account were related to unionization efforts. Specifically, we identified that some of the consulting contracts existed before the unionization efforts and we excluded invoices for which the consultant’s summary of work did not include unionization efforts.
§ Reimbursement to schools are payments to the school accounts for expenses related to the time spent by school personnel in response to the unionization effort and a $3,000 grant to each school for any future response to unionization efforts.



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Alliance Did Not Divert Funds From Classroom Activities to Pay for Its Response to Unionization Efforts

Key Points:


The Alliance Home Office Used Private Funds to Reimburse Its Schools for the Time Principals and Other Staff Spent on Unionization‑Related Activities

The Alliance home office reimbursed its charter schools for time spent by school personnel related to the unionization response with private funds from the special account it created for that response. According to the Alliance CEO, the Alliance home office organized a number of conference calls with school principals, during which it provided training to the principals and answered questions regarding the unionization efforts at the schools. Further, he told us that to prevent them from affecting the principals’ workday, the Alliance home office scheduled these telephone conference calls in the morning and again in the afternoon. This allowed principals to participate when it was most convenient.

We spoke with principals who participated in these conference calls, and they informed us that these were optional conference calls during which the home office answered questions and offered advice regarding the UTLA unionization efforts. Specifically, the principal from the Alliance Susan and Eric Smidt Technology High School (Smidt Technology High School) explained that as part of these conference calls, the home office informed them that they were not allowed to track or interfere with UTLA members and advised them to maintain a distance of at least 100 feet from UTLA members who were on a school campus.

The Alliance CEO explained that to ensure that the schools were not bearing the costs of these conference calls, the Alliance home office prorated the time principals spent participating in these calls and reimbursed the schools’ accounts from the special account. Specifically, the Alliance home office created a spreadsheet to track the date and length of all conference calls. Then it identified all principals and their pay rates and reimbursed the schools for the principals’ time, regardless of whether the principal actually participated in the conference call. Similarly, the Alliance home office used this spreadsheet to prorate the time of other school personnel who spent time on responding to the unionization effort, such as the time spent by staff posting fliers and bulletins the Alliance home office created. Finally, to ensure that the reimbursements to the charter schools were accurate, the Alliance home office required the charter schools to confirm that the reimbursements they received were correct and that they accounted for the time principals and school staff spent in response to the unionization effort. We reviewed a selection of these reimbursements and found that the Alliance home office accurately calculated the rates for reimbursement to the charter schools.

Beginning in fiscal year 2015–16, the Alliance home office provided each school a grant of $3,000 instead of continuing to rely on the reimbursement model. According to the grant agreement letter, Alliance schools are to use these grants to cover the time each school’s principal, assistant principal, office manager, and other school personnel spend responding to unionization efforts. Once a school’s $3,000 advance is depleted, the Alliance CEO indicated that Alliance will make additional privately raised funds available as necessary.


Classroom Expenditures Did Not Decline as a Result of Alliance’s Response to the Unionization Efforts

Because the Alliance home office raised private funds specifically for its response to the unionization efforts, these were not funds that were otherwise slated to go to the schools for classroom expenditures. Moreover, Alliance charter school classroom expenditures did not decline as a result of the unionization response, which began in fiscal year 2014–15. Specifically, we reviewed the per‑pupil classroom expenditures at three Alliance charter schools—Alliance Gertz‑Ressler High School (Gertz‑Ressler High School), Alliance Renee and Meyer Luskin Academy High School (Luskin High School), and Smidt Technology High School—for the past three fiscal years (including fiscal year 2013–14) and found that classroom expenditures increased at these three schools.

As Figure 4 shows, in fiscal year 2013–14—the year before the unionization efforts—per‑pupil classroom expenditures at the three schools were between about $9,000 and $11,900. Although per‑pupil classroom expenditures decreased slightly at Luskin High School and Smidt Technology High School during fiscal year 2014–15, the year unionization began, they increased at Gertz‑Ressler High School. Further, in fiscal year 2015–16, per‑pupil classroom expenditures rose at all three schools to between $12,600 and $14,100.


Figure 4
Alliance College‑Ready Public Schools’ Classroom Expenditures per Pupil
Fiscal Years 2013–14 Through 2015–16

Figure 4 is a line graph that shows the per-pupil classroom expenditures at three Alliance charter schools—Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School, Alliance Renee and Meyer Luskin Academy High School, and Alliance Susan and Eric Smidt Technology High School—for fiscal years 2013-14 through 2015-16.

Sources: California State Auditor generated based on Alliance College‑Ready Public Schools accounting records.



Home Office Funding to the Schools Did Not Decrease as a Result of the Response to Unionization Efforts

Although the Alliance charter schools receive the majority of their funding from public sources, the Alliance home office does provide them with some private funding to help supplement their revenues. In fiscal year 2013–14, one year before the start of the unionization effort, the Alliance home office distributed nearly $2 million in private funding among the Alliance charter schools for events such as principal and teacher of the year awards and parents as partners achievement awards. In fiscal years 2014–15 and 2015–16, while the response to unionization efforts were ongoing, the Alliance home office’s private funding to the charter schools was $9 million and $7 million, respectively. This included nearly $6 million given to the Alliance Morgan McKinzie High School in fiscal year 2014–15 for purposes that included the purchase of a building and parking lot. Because the Alliance home office increased the amount of private funds it donated to the charter schools after the start of the unionization effort, there is no indication that it diverted funds it would normally have given to charter schools to respond to the unionization effort.



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Alliance Did Not Fully Comply With Federal Requirements Before It Shared Confidential Student, Parent, and Alumni Information With Third Parties

Key Points:


Alliance Shared Student, Parent, and Alumni Data With Third‑Party Entities But Did Not Comply With All Federal Requirements

The Alliance home office currently shares parent, student, and alumni information with numerous third‑party entities for a variety of reasons, such as providing analyses of student achievement data and grades or attendance, tracking information relating to free and reduced‑cost meals, and advocating for charter schools. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, allows schools to disclose student information, including directory information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, and date and place of birth under certain circumstances, but it also requires that the schools first annually inform parents and students about their FERPA rights and allow them a reasonable amount of time to opt out of the sharing of directory information. FERPA also permits educational agencies and institutions to disclose directory information about former students as long as the agency or institution respects any opt‑out requests that alumni previously submitted.

Although FERPA requires schools to inform parents and students annually about their FERPA rights, Alliance has not historically provided those notices. According to Alliance’s vice president of operations (operations vice president), before the 2016–17 school year, Alliance did not provide these annual notifications as FERPA requires. After we inquired about Alliance’s practices regarding FERPA notifications, the operations vice president informed us that Alliance would create and disseminate notifications on an ongoing basis. We confirmed that Alliance created new notifications based on guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, and sent them in fall 2016. These notifications—if sent annually—will comply with current federal requirements.

FERPA also requires schools to provide students and parents a reasonable amount of time to opt out of sharing their directory information. To comply with FERPA requirements, at the beginning of each school year Alliance charter schools provide parents with opt‑out letters so that they may request that student directory information be withheld and the schools are then responsible for collecting the opt‑out notices from Alliance parents and creating the opt‑out list for the home office. However, the Alliance chief of staff confirmed that before the 2016–17 school year, there was no expectation that schools would retain opt‑out requests or that the home office would validate that the lists the schools created of those opting out were complete. As a result, we were unable to determine whether the lists of parents who had opted out earlier than the 2016–17 school year were complete and accurate. Therefore, we could not determine whether Alliance honored all opt‑out requests parents and students had submitted during the period we reviewed.

To address this concern, the Alliance chief of staff told us that, beginning in the 2016–17 school year, the Alliance home office is requiring its charter schools to scan copies of all opt‑out letters to a shared drive and generate a list of opt‑out notices to ensure that the lists are complete and that directory information is not shared inappropriately.

Alliance Enters Into Data‑Sharing Agreements With Numerous Third‑Party Entities, Including Advocacy Groups, to Share Confidential Information

The Alliance home office currently shares parent, student, and alumni information with 19 third‑party entities for reasons described earlier. We reviewed five data‑sharing agreements between Alliance and third‑party entities and found that these agreements include provisions regarding security of the confidential information that is shared. For example, the Alliance home office entered into a data‑sharing agreement with the American Institutes for Research (AIR) to measure the impacts of teacher initiatives and provide feedback on those initiatives. The agreement between Alliance and AIR requires researchers to maintain data in compliance with federal and state laws, as well as to adhere to best practices in the information security field. However, we found that Alliance could benefit from standardizing the provisions of these agreements. For example, although the data‑sharing agreement between Alliance and The Boston Consulting Group, Inc. (Boston Consulting) calls for Boston Consulting to keep the shared data confidential and to use these data only for the intended purposes, it does not explicitly refer to federal and state data security or confidentiality laws. As a result, this agreement is not as robust and specific as other Alliance agreements we reviewed.

CCSA Member Services

CCSA provides services and support to its members including the following:

Source: CCSA’s public website.

Alliance also shared directory information with the
CCSA, a membership organization that represents the interests of charter schools, performs state and local advocacy directly affecting charter schools, and offers its members financial and legal services, as well as other support and services shown in the text box. Alliance charter schools have been members of CCSA since 2003, and for 2015 they paid an annual membership fee of $5 per student (totaling about $45,600). Alliance charter schools paid for the membership out of their unrestricted fund account that includes both public and private funds. State law grants schools authority to use their funding for membership in organizations that promote and advance public education and the improvement of educational opportunities for California’s children.

In addition to CCSA’s regular membership services, CCSA and Alliance entered into an agreement in April 2015 under which Alliance shared alumni data with CCSA. The purpose was to provide charter school alumni with information and guidance about charter school issues and to conduct research and evaluation for the benefit of charter schools. According to CCSA’s chief of staff, CCSA used the information Alliance provided to contact alumni who may have been interested in conducting outreach to Alliance parents and other Alliance alumni. Additionally, CCSA set aside funds to pay Alliance alumni to call parents and inform them of the unionization effort. According to the script CCSA created, the alumni informed parents that UTLA has a track record of opposing charter schools and gauged their support for Alliance charter schools without UTLA involvement.

FERPA allows schools to provide personally identifiable information from an education record to school officials without consent or an opt‑out process if the relationship between the school and school officials meets certain provisions. Specifically, schools may release information to school officials—defined by the U.S. Department of Education as professors, administrators, or contractors, among others—who have a legitimate educational interest in the information, provided the school official is under the direct control of the school with respect to the use and maintenance of the educational records.

The Alliance chief of staff and legal counsel stated that the data‑sharing agreement between Alliance and CCSA met the requirement of the school official exception, and that as a result Alliance was not required to obtain consent to release records. Alliance maintains that the agreement involves a legitimate educational interest because it allows CCSA to host trainings on public speaking and community relations and to provide information on charter school policy and programs. Additionally, the data‑sharing agreement has provisions requiring CCSA to comply with FERPA and maintain the confidentiality of any data it receives from Alliance.

However, although FERPA and FERPA‑related guidance only broadly define legitimate educational interest and school official, federal guidance requires educational institutions—if they intend to use the school official exception to provide confidential data to a contractor—to define these terms in their annual notifications to parents. As indicated earlier, Alliance has only recently begun sending these required notifications. In relevant regulations, Education has stated that educational institutions must provide in their annual notification the criteria they use to define these terms before they disclose protected information under this provision of law. Because Alliance failed to provide proper annual parental notice before providing alumni data to CCSA, Alliance’s reliance on this FERPA exception appears to be misplaced. In addition, as described earlier, Alliance only recently began requiring schools to retain copies of all opt‑out letters from parents. Without the ability to independently verify that Alliance honored all opt‑out requests, we have no assurance that Alliance has fully complied with FERPA in its sharing of directory data with CCSA.

Recommendations

To ensure that it complies with federal laws regarding student privacy, Alliance should document its revised process for collecting, tracking, and monitoring the list of Alliance students and families who have opted out of sharing their directory information with third parties.

Alliance should standardize its data‑sharing agreements so that each agreement contains robust and specific language regarding data security and the confidentiality of the data being shared.


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Other Areas We Reviewed

To address the audit objectives approved by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (Audit Committe), we also reviewed the Alliance home office contracting and procurement policies and procedures.

Alliance’s Contracting and Procurement Policies and Procedures

State law grants charter schools broad discretion in how they spend public funds. Specifically, state law authorizes charter schools to use funds for schoolwide and charterwide purposes, and federal regulations place only a few requirements on how charter schools procure certain goods and services, such as the provision of school meals from certain food service management companies and electronic telecommunications services. Under its administrative service agreements with each of its 25 charter schools, the Alliance home office provides contracting and procurement services for its schools. To meet this obligation, the Alliance home office developed approval policies to indicate who is authorized to sign contracts for the home office and the Alliance schools. Similarly, it established procurement policies and procedures that specify who can approve invoices and entries into the Alliance’s accounting system. The policies also include a vendor approval process, requiring Alliance vendors to submit certain documents, such as a background check and insurance certification forms.

We reviewed a total of 80 transactions from fiscal years 2014–15 and 2015–16 at the Alliance home office and three of its charter schools—Gertz‑Ressler High School, Luskin High School, and Smidt Technology High School. This included a review of 22 transactions from the special account used specifically in response to the unionization efforts.

Alliance Expenditures We Reviewed Were Allowable, but We Could Not Always Verify That They Were Reasonable

Alliance Did Not Always Follow Its Contracting Policies and Procedures

Alliance Did Not Establish Consistent Segregation of Duties

Alliance Did Not Require Retention of Vendor Conflict‑of‑Interest Disclosure Forms

Alliance procurement training indicates that its vendors must complete conflict‑of‑interest disclosure forms to be eligible for a contract. The disclosure form states that a vendor must disclose any relationship with any Alliance home office or Alliance charter school official or employee to prevent any potential or existing conflict of interest. However, the operations vice president confirmed that the Alliance home office did not require the retention of vendor conflict‑of‑interest disclosure forms until the beginning of fiscal year 2016–17.

Recommendations

The Alliance home office should update and formalize its procurement policies and procedures manual, and it should provide adequate training to appropriate staff before the start of the 2017–18 school year—including the following:



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Scope and Methodology

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee directed the California State Auditor to review the Alliance management organization and the charter schools under its operational jurisdiction. The audit scope includes eight audit objectives. Table 3 lists the audit objectives and the methods we used to address them.


Table 3
Audit Objectives and the Methods Used to Address Them
Audit Objective Method
1 Review and evaluate the laws, rules, and regulations significant to the audit objectives. We reviewed state laws outlining the procedures for establishing and managing California charter schools, such as the requirements found in the Charter Schools Act and the Educational Employment Relations Act, the State’s collective bargaining laws regarding teachers and other school employees. We also reviewed the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records.
 
2 For the charter schools overseen by Alliance, identify the source and amount of funding received and, to the extent possible, determine whether public and private funds are comingled.
  • To identify the source and amount of funding received by the Alliance home office and the Alliance charter schools from fiscal years 2014–15 through 2015–16, we interviewed key officials within Alliance’s accounting division and reviewed revenue and expenditure data for the Alliance home office and its charter schools, including audited financial statements.

  • To determine whether public and private funds were comingled, we reviewed Alliance’s accounting system and confirmed that the system tracks revenue and expense accounts for the home office and the charter schools using distinct resource codes with public and private designations.
 
3 For the charter schools overseen by Alliance, identify the major categories of spending, including, but not limited to, salary, wages, and benefits for teachers, administrative costs, contract costs, and legal fees. Further, identify the percentage of funding spent on classroom instruction.
  • To identify major categories of spending from fiscal years 2014–15 through 2015–16, we interviewed key officials in Alliance’s accounting department and obtained the financial data for the Alliance home office and its charter schools.

  • We reviewed per‑pupil expenditures at three Alliance charter schools: Gertz‑Ressler High School, Luskin High School, and Smidt Technology High School.
     
4 Determine whether a selection of expenditures of funds were allowable and reasonable.
  • We obtained and reviewed Alliance procurement policies and procedures and interviewed key management and procurement personnel.

  • We reviewed a selection of 80 transactions occurring from fiscal years 2014–15 through 2015–16 at the Alliance home office and three of its charter schools—Gertz‑Ressler High School, Luskin High School, and Smidt Technology High School. This included review of 22 transactions from the special account used specifically in response to the unionization efforts.

  • To gain assurance that we selected transactions from the complete population of expenditures, we traced 29 disbursements to the data and found no errors.
     
5 Determine the following expenditures relating to teacher unionization: To address this objective, we performed the tasks described below at the Alliance home office:

a. The amount of money Alliance spent to write, develop, print, duplicate, and distribute communications, paper or electronic, to Alliance educators, parents, and alumni referencing teacher unionization efforts.

b. The amount of money Alliance spent to hire consultants who have assisted in developing communications, planning documents, and strategies relating to teacher unionization efforts.

c. The cost of all legal services, including, but not limited to, the costs to respond to any complaints issued by PERB and to respond to and litigate the injunction issued by the Los Angeles County Superior Court against Alliance.

d. Whether the schools’ individual boards of directors and the Alliance board of directors were involved in deciding how, when, and to what extent to allocate resources relating to teacher unionization efforts, rather than to the classroom.

  • Interviewed key Alliance personnel.

  • Reviewed expenditures from the special account and other funds to identify funds Alliance spent in response to the unionization efforts.

  • Obtained financial reports on funds expended in response to the unionization effort.

  • Reviewed expenditure reports to identify and categorize expenditures from the special account Alliance created to track expenditures related to the unionization efforts.

  • Reviewed the Alliance home office’s allocation formula for schools’ personnel time spent on unionization efforts.

  • Interviewed charter school personnel to verify that the time allocated to them was accurate and to determine the extent of their involvement in the unionization efforts.

  • Obtained and reviewed Alliance board minutes that discussed creating a fund to track the costs of responding to the unionization effort.
 
6 Examine the policies, procedures, and practices by which Alliance, on behalf of the charter schools it manages, shared parent, student, and alumni information with third‑party organizations, including, but not limited to, the CCSA. We interviewed CCSA personnel regarding data they received from Alliance and how that information was used to conduct outreach in response to the unionization efforts.
     
7 Determine whether parent, student, and alumni information was shared by Alliance or its charter schools in conflict with confidentiality laws, policies, or practices.
  • We reviewed relevant laws and regulations governing confidentiality of parent, student, and alumni data.

  • We interviewed key management and procurement personnel.

  • We also reviewed data‑sharing agreements between Alliance and third‑party organizations where Alliance shared parent, student, or alumni information.
 
8 Review and assess any other issues that are significant to the audit.
  • We evaluated the results of the PERB judge’s 2016 proposed decision and UTLA and Alliance responses to that decision.

  • We also interviewed officials at Alliance and UTLA regarding the status of the unionization efforts at the Alliance charter schools.

Sources: California State Auditor’s analysis of Joint Legislative Audit Committee audit request number 2016‑117, and information and documentation identified in the table column titled Method.




We conduct50ed this audit under the authority vested in the California State Auditor by Section 8543 et seq. of the California Government Code and according to generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives specified in the Scope and Methodology section of the report. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.



Respectfully submitted,

ELAINE M. HOWLE, CPA
State Auditor

Date: April 13, 2017

Staff:
Benjamin M. Belnap, CIA, Deputy State Auditor
Ralph M. Flynn
Christopher P. Bellows
Ashley Yan

Legal Counsel:
Stephanie Ramirez‑Ridgeway, Assistant Chief Counsel


For questions regarding the contents of this report, please contact Margarita Fernández, Chief of Public Affairs, at 916.445.0255.




Footnotes

4 We noted that not all of the consulting costs reported in the special account were related to unionization efforts. Specifically, we identified that some of the consulting contracts existed before the unionization efforts and we excluded invoices for which the consultant’s summary of work did not include unionization efforts. Go back to text



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