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Horizon Charter Schools parts ways with official who signed Rocklin deals

Interim CBO one of school’s outside fiscal investigators
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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CHARTER SCHOOLS SERIES

The midyear closure of a popular Horizon Charter Schools program in Placer County, displaced hundreds of students, angered parents and sparked questions about what led to the sudden problems with one of the longest standing charters in California.

The Journal and its Gold Country Media partners launched an effort to shed light on the state of Horizon and charter schools in general. The series concluded Tuesday, March 5.

Part 1: How Horizon’s $800,000 investment, other facilities went awry

Part 2: A snapshot of Horizon’s financesa closer look at its CEO

Part 3: Horizon issue reveals oversight is a delicate balancing act

Part 4: A charter success story

Part 5: Comparing charter schools to traditional public schools

The Horizon Charter Schools official who signed off on what would ultimately be a problematic lease and more than $800,000 in tenant improvements for its Rocklin site is no longer employed by the school.

Cliff Bautista said “I really don’t know” when asked about the circumstances surrounding his departure as Horizon’s chief business official.

“My guess would be the whole ALA (Accelerated Learning Academy) blowup and the desire for the school to cut ties from the previous administration,” Bautista wrote in an email to the Journal.

Horizon CEO Craig Heimbichner said Bautista “has fully retired,” and declined to comment further on specifics of the move as it was a personnel matter.

The Journal wrapped up its investigative series Tuesday on charter schools and issues surrounding the midyear closure of Horizon’s ALA program as well as the site that had been holding classes for 391 students at 290 Technology Way in Rocklin.

It revealed that 290 Technology Way was in the process of being reclaimed by Wells Fargo, and that the site had contributed to a $2 million budget gap for Horizon’s overall program in 2011.

Horizon Charter Schools is funded more than 99 percent by public money.

“All I can say is I’m determined to clean house, and I’ve been doing it and I’ll keep doing it until we’re done and we’ve righted the ship,” Heimbichner said. “And we’re almost there.”

In the wake of the ALA closure, 305 students left Horizon Charter Schools, and a parent group determined to hold Horizon accountable for what it deemed ethical and financial wrongdoing ultimately led to Heimbichner launching an outside investigation of its finances.

Cyndy Spano, one of the three outside fiscal advisers conducting the review, is now Horizon’s interim chief business official.

Heimbichner said he doesn’t expect the move to affect the objectivity of the report, which is being produced by two separate firms.

Spano has a contract position and is not being considered for the permanent job – nor does she desire it, he said.

“(Spano) is doing part of the detailed work on the audit, so for now that person also is directing the business office and that actually fits together quite well for the moment,” Heimbichner said. “She has her finger on the pulse of everything that is going on in the business office, so that seemed like a natural short term solution.

“I think it will be obvious when the report comes out that it hasn’t affected it. … Whatever is being surfaced is going to be in black and white, and people can judge it at that time.”

Western Placer Unified School District is the authorizing agency for Horizon Charter Schools, and district superintendent Scott Leaman has said the fiscal investigation will factor into the review of Horizon when its charters are up for reauthorization this spring.

Bautista had been serving as interim CEO when he signed a 10-year sublease with third-party management company Group Access for a site to hold classes for Horizon programs on 290 Technology Way in Rocklin in June 2011.

Bautista also signed off on an $814,455 build out of the facility that summer.

“Group Access was successful in providing us with great facilities in Elk Grove and Auburn at a time when the State had a budget mess and K-12 funding was tanking – nobody really wanted to work with a state funded charter school,” Bautista wrote. “Our rental rates were good, so there was no reason to think we would run into a problem in Rocklin.”

Heimbichner said he discovered the budget problem when he became CEO in October 2011, and has stated he would never have signed up for the Rocklin site in the first place.

Horizon closed the Rocklin site in October 2012 after neighbors complained to Placer County about traffic and safety problems during drop off and pickup times. Attendance had surpassed what the business license for the site had allowed.

Horizon and Group Access then disputed rent payments for the site, and Group Access stopped paying Wells Fargo, the land owner, so the bank ultimately is reclaiming the property.

“I officially retired from public education on June 30, 2012,” Bautista wrote in an email to the Journal. “As a cost saving move to the school I offered to stay on at half compensation to assist as I had a lot of history with HCS (Horizon Charter Schools).

“I was surprised to say the least at what happened.”

Horizon’s records show Bautista’s base salary was $122,656 for 2011-12, and he was set to make $80,000 for 2012-13. He started with Horizon in 2002, and his last day was Feb. 15.

Horizon Charter Schools has 2,700 students, Heimbichner said, spanning six counties with two programs in Auburn featuring 250 students that meet for classes at a site on Blocker Drive.

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews