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Horizon CEO addresses complaints over Rocklin, Lincoln school closures

Outside adviser hired to review charter’s finances
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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LINCOLN -- The drama started early and stayed throughout.

Minutes before the Horizon Charter Schools board meeting Thursday evening, about 20 parents and former teachers lined up at Horizon’s corporate office in Lincoln. Two security guards blocked their entrance.

The group was eager to voice complaints about ethics and accountability issues related to the abrupt closure of Horizon’s Accelerated Learning Academy, a distance learning program that had sites in Rocklin and Lincoln.

With the small room already at capacity, an adjoining space had to be opened for additional seating, allowing parents and teachers on both sides an opportunity to speak.

Horizon CEO Craig Heimbichner addressed the complaints by announcing that Horizon has hired an “outside fiscal adviser” to “meticulously and thoroughly examine” its financial records, to “get to the bottom” of the situation.

“In spite of Horizon’s best efforts, and against Horizon’s desires, the closure of ALA occurred in this past month,” he said in a prepared statement. “Horizon regrets the difficulties this closure has brought to affected families.”

Horizon, the 15th charter school in California, currently has 2,700 students, including those at an Auburn location for the School of Kreativity, Innovation and Excellence.

Heimbichner said the financial adviser, Terri Ryland, comes with recommendations from the Western Placer Unified School District and Placer County Office of Education, and her report will be presented at a future board meeting.

“We are not stopping here,” said Angela Henning, Horizon board vice president. “Of course we’re going to have to wait until all the findings come forward, but we are going to have new protocols.”

Heimbichner’s statement followed more than an hour of public comment that went back-and-forth between Horizon’s detractors and its supporters, punctuated by a timer’s alarm every three minutes – that’s how long people were allowed to speak due to the volume of commenters – and some gavel-banging to enforce the rule.

The small meeting room with about 40 seats for the public had already met its capacity before the meeting began, with about 16 of those seated wearing blue Horizon polo shirts.

When the meeting began, Henning asked if some people would move to a connecting room to allow for the people outside to enter. A group obliged and sat in the adjacent room, waiting their turn to comment.

The three-minute time limit was strictly enforced and caused tensions to rise and a verbal dispute between Horizon supporters and the parent/teacher group after one parent’s time ran out mid-speech.

Todd Pfeffer, speaking on behalf of a group of 14 former Horizon teachers, requested that they be paid for the loss of future earnings.

On Oct. 11, parents received an email from Heimbichner informing them that, due to safety concerns regarding traffic and children in the parking lot, the Rocklin school would be closing in just a few days. The site had 391 students in the third- through eighth-grade ALA and the Rocklin Academy of Science, Math and Engineering for ninth- through 12th-graders.

Heimbichner reiterated that reasoning Thursday, although Pfeffer said Horizon knew of the safety problems months before and failed to take steps to address them.

“Last spring, the former principal issued a safety alert in the ALA newsletter, which was distributed to the entire parent community, along with Mr. Heimbichner,” Pfeffer said. “The announcement stated that, ‘there have been a few near misses with students being hit when getting out of their cars.’

“The only logical conclusion is that Horizon was either not concerned with traffic safety or they did not want to pay for security guards.”

Heimbichner said Horizon has been victimized by Group Access, the third-party management company that subleased the Rocklin and Lincoln sites as well as Auburn to the charter school – resulting in an improper permit that caused these problems.

According to the terms of the business license issued for the Horizon Distance Resource Learning center in 2011, daily attendance is limited to 75 students at any one time and no more than 200 students on site throughout the day.

“Horizon learned directly from Placer County that Group Access misrepresented Horizon to the landlord and the county also, changing the number of students that would be appropriately housed at the facility and the very purpose of the facility,” Heimbichner said. “As a result, Group Access obtained an improper permit not fitting the true safety needs of the ALA students at this site (Rocklin).

“Consequently, the site traffic congestion quickly became a recurring problem.”

Heimbichner attributed the closure of the Lincoln site, which housed the ALA K-2 classes, to declining enrollment that made it financially unviable to keep it open.

Bina Spray, a former eighth-grade ALA student, fought back tears as she told Heimbichner and the board how she hasn’t been able to find a new school yet.

“At ALA, I felt like I could be myself with people who wanted to learn as much as I did and teachers who truly wanted to teach me,” said Spray, one of five former ALA students to speak. “I am now missing out on my education; my friends have gone in many different directions. I deserved an education from this school. I did my part, I came to school every day ready to learn. You failed me, and I deserve better. We deserve better.”

 

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