OAKLAND — The governing board of the troubled University Preparatory Charter Academy has hired an interim leader in hopes of keeping the school open.

On Monday morning — before an audience of five, including the candidate and this reporter — the board president announced the appointment of Liane Zimny, a former school district administrator who until recently oversaw the charter school known as Uprep.

The news came days after the school's founding director resigned amid allegations of cheating, fudged transcripts and other forms of academic fraud. Many of the complaints were raised by teachers, who compiled an extensive report of their experiences at the school.

"Our job now is to keep the school alive and to make sure, if there is any substance to any of the complaints, they are corrected," said Harold Pendergrass, a former Oakland school board member who now serves on the Uprep board.

But some question whether the shift has come too late. And not everyone is convinced the outgoing director, Isaac Haqq, will relinquish control over the high school he started in 2001 — even though he enclosed his keys to the school along with his letter of resignation. (Pendergrass said Haqq did not ask for severance pay or anything else as a condition of his departure.)

Bob Martel, a former teacher and whistle-blower whom Haqq fired last semester, noted that Haqq "stepped down" once before.


This past school year, he said, the board hired a new principal to run day-to-day operations — just before auditors came to review the school for accreditation purposes.

Then, after the school received its stamp of approval fromthe Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Haqq reasserted his authority, Martel said.

"People aren't really sure that he's gone," Martel said. "Just because he changes his title or goes underground doesn't mean anything."

No matter who is in charge, efforts to rebuild the institution will be moot if the Oakland school district closes it first. The district authorizes most of the city's independently run, publicly funded charter schools, and it has the power to shut down charters that have violated their contracts.

This year, the district's state administrator decided to close the Space Exploration Academies, two schools in West Oakland that had opened just months earlier. (The schools have appealed the decision.) More recently, district staff recommended against renewing the charter of the Bay Area Technology School — a position that has since changed.

Troy Flint, the new spokesman for the Oakland school district, said Monday that an announcement relating to the future of Uprep is expected to come Wednesday. District staff are reviewing the allegations as well as the governing board's official response.

If Uprep stays open, it will face some serious challenges. Many of the teachers have left, along with some of the students. The state department of education has invalidated its 2006 and 2007 standardized test scores as a result of security breaches and suspicious erasures. And questions raised about the validity of transcripts might jeopardize students' chances of getting into certain colleges, which would severely undermine the school's mission.

In an interview last week, Zimny said, "The system needs to be much more transparent, and the school will need to assure other schools that receive these transcripts that what they receive can be relied upon."

Latasha Burrell, 15, said some students, after receiving their report cards, noted seemingly magical improvements in their grades. She recalls thinking to herself: "How did you get an 'A' if you haven't been here all year?"

But it's the rapid teacher turnover that has bothered Burrell the most.

"We've been having a lot of different teachers, so we have to be learning something different all the time," she said. "It makes you confused."

The recent complaints concerned Burrell's parents enough for them to consider transferring her to another school as an 11th-grader. Burrell said she will likely attend Oakland Technical High School, where she'll have to adjust once more. 

In light of the scandal, some — including a statewide charter advocacy group — have questioned the role of the school's governing board.

If such practices as making up grades and cheating on state exams did happen, how could they have persisted for so long without anyone being questioned or held to account?

Governance at Uprep was one of the concerns raised by auditors during a review of the school through a new, charter-specific certification process, said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association. The association has suspended Uprep's membership.

Pendergrass acknowledged the governing board needs to take a more active role in overseeing the school and reaching out to families.

In the future, Pendergrass said, the board will try to schedule its regular meetings further in advance and at times when more families will be able to attend. They will also post notices online — not just at the school.

Pendergrass acknowledged "there is considerable room for improvement," at the school, but he is skeptical about the extent of the complaints. "I doubt it seriously," he said.

The board has yet to investigate the allegations in much depth, however. Pendergrass said Uprep's initial response to the district's inquiry — which concluded the allegations were essentially baseless — was primarily based on information provided by Haqq, himself.

Pendergrass said Zimny will dig deeper and examine more original documents in the coming weeks.

"Now, my goal is to make sure that our rushed response can be reviewed," Pendergrass said before adding, "We're confident that the transcripts are legitimate. I probably will look at every one myself."

E-mail Katy Murphy at kmurphy@oaklandtribune.com. Read her Oakland schools blog at http://www.ibabuzz.com/education.