A Los Angeles-based charter school network on Monday defended its spending practices — speaking out for the first time since The Times published a story documenting a history of potential conflicts of interest and questionable use of public money.
Leading up to the publication of the story, Celerity Educational Group’s founder and former CEO Vielka McFarlane declined to speak to reporters. When The Times sent Celerity and its lawyer a list of questions about its finances, the network said it was having difficulty providing answers because many of its computers and records had been seized when federal agents raided its offices in late January.
The nonprofit organization, which currently runs seven schools in Los Angeles County and four in Louisiana, remains the subject of a federal inquiry. It is also under investigation by the inspector general of the Los Angeles Unified School District. No one at Celerity, including McFarlane, has been charged with a crime stemming from the schools’ operations.
On Monday evening, the network sent parents a newsletter with a detailed response that criticized the press coverage as full of “numerous errors and insinuations.”
The newsletter justified McFarlane’s 2013 income of $471,842 — about 35% more than the salary of the superintendent of L.A. Unified — as comparable with “peer organizations in the education world.”
It said that her base pay was $257,000, plus a $10,680 auto allowance, and that it had reached nearly half a million dollars because she had been paid for unused vacation time.
Celerity Educational Group’s credit card statements, which The Times obtained through a public records request, show that when McFarlane was the network’s CEO she paid for expensive meals and hotel stays with a credit card belonging to her nonprofit organization, which receives the bulk of its funding from the state. Asked if she ever repaid Celerity, McFarlane and Celerity’s lawyer did not comment.
Yet the network’s newsletter said that many of these expenses were “appropriate” and were paid for by Celerity Educational Group’s parent organization, Celerity Global Development, which McFarlane currently runs.
The newsletter conceded that some of these transactions “were personal expenses mistakenly put on the school credit card, which Ms. McFarlane paid back.” It offered no evidence of repayment and did not say how much McFarlane reimbursed her schools.
The Times also reviewed financial records showing that McFarlane had steered hundreds of thousands of public dollars to several companies providing services to her schools. State records show the companies are registered to her and list their addresses as either Celerity Educational’s or Global’s offices.
Celerity’s newsletter states that McFarlane does not own any of these companies and was never paid by them. It did not address The Times’ finding that McFarlane has employed both her brother and her son at entities that work for her schools.
Celerity’s decision to speak out comes as the organization is ramping up its efforts to build public support for its schools and bolster its reputation.
Two of its charter schools, Celerity Dyad in South L.A. and Celerity Troika in the Eagle Rock neighborhood, are in danger of being closed if the State Board of Education does not agree to renew them. The board is expected to vote on the matter this spring.
L.A. Unified and the Los Angeles County Board of Education both have refused to authorize the schools, basing their decisions on mounting concern that Celerity’s leaders may have misused public funds and attempted to obscure their actions behind multiple layers of bureaucracy.
“Now more than ever, our community leaders need to hear from our families,” Celerity urged in its newsletter.