By Maureen Magee
San Diego Union Tribune
A former San Diego County superintendent who approved charter schools that later hired his consulting firm was arraigned Friday in San Diego Superior Court on one felony count of conflict of interest, according to the San Diego district attorney’s office.
The allegation facing Steve Van Zant, who currently is superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District, dates to May 2010 while he was superintendent of the Mountain Empire Unified School District.
According to the criminal complaint, Van Zant “did willfully and unlawfully violate the provisions of such (conflict of interest) laws.”
Van Zant, who is not in custody, could not be reached for comment. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.
The District Attorney’s Office declined to provide details of the case.
Van Zant, 53, has been a controversial figure among San Diego County educators. Long before he faced legal troubles, Van Zant stirred animosity among school districts for years as he brokered deals with charter schools to operate in their districts — often without providing the notice required by law.
Some of the charters that Van Zant ushered through soon hired his consulting firm for support services.
Van Zant worked in the tiny one-campus Dehesa School District, where the school board authorized several charters to operate in other districts, before he was hired to run Mountain Empire schools in 2008.
Under Van Zant’s direction, Mountain Empire authorized its first charter, San Diego Neighborhood Homeschool. Roughly a dozen more followed before he left in 2013.
None of the charters would locate in the district’s backcountry communities. Instead, they would operate in more populated reaches of the county — from Oceanside to San Diego to Chula Vista to National City.
Officials from small and cash-strapped districts approved charters to operate outside of their boundaries in part for financial reasons. The authorizing districts don’t stand to lose students — or the state attendance funds that accompany them — and they receive up to 3 percent of the charter’s revenue in exchange for varying degrees of oversight and often administrative services.
Although the trend didn’t start in Mountain Empire, under Van Zant the district played a key role in San Diego County’s spike in “out-of-district” charters — of which there are more than 80 currently in operation.
Van Zant didn’t just woo charters to earn revenue for Mountain Empire. The steady stream of charters helped bring money to his consulting firm.
A couple of years into his tenure at Mountain Empire, Van Zant and his wife, Ingrid, established EdHive, a consulting firm that offers administrative services and helps charters find districts to green-light their schools.
The company website claims, “We can find an authorizing district for your charter and cut a deal that provides the financial incentive for the district and still save your school money.”
According to profiles of company officials posted on the LinkedIn professional networking website, EdHive has represented at least 27 charters in California. Among them are several charters approved by Mountain Empire during Van Zant’s tenure as superintendent.
Charters that hired EdHive include Endeavour Academy, which was shut down last year after the San Diego Unified School District sued the charter and the Alpine Union School District, which authorized the campus to operate in a Clairemont church.
Most of San Diego County’s out-of-district charters are independent-study programs authorized by small districts in the eastern reaches of the region that have popped up in other districts only to serve their students and take the state attendance funds that accompany them.
The practice has sparked several lawsuits in San Diego County and elsewhere in California.
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation in 2014 that would have restricted where out-of-district charters can locate because of “retroactive language that could force existing charter schools to change locations.”
In September 2014, Brown said in his veto message he would assign a team to “examine the situation and come back with solutions.” That work is still under way, according to a spokesperson for the governor.
In San Diego County, out-of-district charters continue to pit districts against one another. In his veto message, Brown appeared to acknowledge the problem: “Unfortunately, it appears that some districts and charter schools have gone against the spirit of the law.”
He went on to say that “this has led to litigation and strained relationships among districts and charter schools.”
A Superior Court judge agreed with San Diego Unified last year that the Endeavour charter was a traditional school and not a independent-study hybrid as it was billed, and that organizers failed to notify the district as required under the law. Endeavour’s headquarters were based 150 miles away in Santa Clarita Valley.
Under the state education code, charters that cannot find facilities in their authorizing district may look for a campus in another district as long as they notify that district before the charter is approved.
San Diego Unified has also sent cease-and-desist letters to several out-of-district charters.
Since Kathy Granger was hired as Mountain Empire’s superintendent in December 2013, Mountain Empire has halted its trend of wooing and approving far-flung charters.
She would not discuss Van Zant but did confirm she had been contacted by the District Attorney’s Office about him.
“If anyone were to come to me to open a charter school outside our district boundaries, I would recommend they go to the district that represents the area they want to open a school,” she said.
“We are not opposed to offering education options for our students and we are not against charter schools. Our focus is to provide programs for our students.”
Since taking office in Mountain Empire, Granger has made a point to make personal visits to charter schools in the name of oversight.
Meanwhile, Granger is hopeful that Brown will address the ambiguity in the law when it comes to charters operating outside their authorizing districts.
“I have learned a lot about charter schools since coming here,” she said. “I definitely think there needs to be clarity in the law.”
Ricardo Soto, chief attorney for the California Charter School Association, told The San Diego Union-Tribune in November that school districts are threatened by non-classroom-based charters that he believes operate legally.
Still, he said the law could use some clarity.
Van Zant was arraigned one day after he requested a leave from his three-day-a-week job as superintendent in the two-campus (including a charter) Sausalito district.
Citing personal reasons, Van Zant was put on indefinite paid leave. His salary was $172,000 in 2014.