A balanced job or ‘they want to kill our charters’? Debate rages after a day of tough charter decisions
Mike Szymanski | October 19, 2016
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LA Unified is struggling to define its role in overseeing charter schools as the numbers of academically strong charters continue to grow across the nation’s second-largest school district.
LA has the most independent public charter schools overseen by a single district and usually approves most petitions. But this week a record number of charters, all outperforming neighboring schools, were recommended for denial, and after 13 hours of meetings on Tuesday, five charters were rejected.
All LA Unified leaders and staff agreed that the charter schools’ rejections had nothing to do with their academic success. Instead, they were turned down for problems with infrastructure, governance or lack of documentation.
“Frankly, this is not about good management,” Caprice Young, CEO of Magnolia Public Schools, said in an interview after she saw three of her high-performing schools rejected for renewal late Tuesday night. “This is about the fact that they want to kill our charters and nothing more.”
Citing thousands of pages of documents that Magnolia provided to the district, Young said, “They are asking us to hire an army of accountants when what I really want is a battalion of teachers. This is pure harassment.”
And that’s coming from someone who has led the school board. “You’re talking to the former president of the LA Unified school board,” Young said. “I believe in charter and non-charter schools. I will continue to fight to be part of this LAUSD family even if they don’t want us.”
In an interview Wednesday, school board President Steve Zimmer said the decisions were not easy, but they were balanced.
“We did our job yesterday,” Zimmer said. “We have an oversight role, and we take it seriously. These are public schools and these are public dollars. The effort to say our decisions are somehow overly political or have to do with any of the drama or atmospherics around these questions is not the case. We did our job.”
That job included hearing emotional speeches from teachers, parents, graduates and administrators begging the seven elected board members to renew their school petitions. The school board, as the authorizing body, reviews charters every five years and either grants an extension to the school or rejects it, which could lead to the school’s closing.
As usual, hundreds of concerned families flooded the downtown Beaudry Avenue headquarters wearing their school T-shirts and carrying signs of support. Most of the 400 who were bused in for the Magnolia hearing didn’t even get inside the auditorium.
“It is very difficult, we don’t enjoy this part of our job at all,” Zimmer said about the charter hearings. “It is part of our job as authorizers and it’s not fun.”
Parent Paul Girard is spending the rest of the week looking for a new school for his twin sons now that their Celerity Troika school in Eagle Rock was rejected for renewal.
“I will have to look for a school outside of the area, outside of the district,” said Girard, who has volunteered at the school for the past two years. “I am very disappointed that my sons won’t have this high-quality education in a diverse learning environment. This is a life-changing decision for a lot of us.”
None of the schools will close immediately, and all plan to appeal to the Los Angeles County Office of Education for charter approval, then if needed to the state Board of Education. After gaining approval, the schools could continue to operate and even possibly remain on district property, but without LA Unified oversight.
Seventh-grader Abigail Rubio, with tears streaming down her face, was comforted outside the school board auditorium by friends as she contemplated not spending 8th grade at Celerity Dyad School in Los Angeles.
“How could they do this?” she sobbed. “I love my school.”
The Celerity schools were rejected after staff said the schools’ umbrella nonprofit Celebrity Global Development wasn’t being transparent about documentation or finances. Six board members voted to reject the schools. Ref Rodriguez, who represents the area where the school is located, abstained.
“I want our charter partners to be good partners, and I want to ask (the district’s) charter division to be good partners too,” said Rodriguez, who also expressed concern at the meeting that the schools would be approved by the county after they are rejected by the LA Unified board. “I don’t want to see these schools in our backyard authorized by someone else.”
Ultimately, the other board members voted against the Celerity schools, and Monica Ratliff said she voted because of the “issue of transparency.” Board member Monica Garcia, often considered a charter supporter along with Rodriguez, after a dramatic pause finally agreed with the other board members.
Charter Schools Division Chief Jose Cole-Gutierrez, who was called up to address the board repeatedly Tuesday night to explain the staff decisions to reject the schools, said about Celerity, “We acknowledge the achievement is strong, but we have severe concerns with regard to their lack of transparency. We are not even clear who the board members are.”
Garcia said, “These are achieving schools and that is what causes us great concern.” She said she hoped that the district would find ways to help charter schools comply better.
Board member Scott Schmerelson said, “We have to base it on the facts. Everyone knows it’s a great school.”
Superintendent Michelle King said she agreed with her staff’s recommendations in order to meet more uniform standards in charter school decisions. But the school board members sometimes ignore staff decisions.
Zimmer said that the board works with the guidelines that are provided from the state level. “You have to understand this is a whole new world that is different from what it was even five years ago. People have to understand how many charters we authorized. People have to understand how large a system it is and how it was not meant to be this large.”
Zimmer said, “Nobody has ever attempted to do the level of oversight and authorization that we have attempted to do at a scope this large. So, some of what you are seeing is how we are figuring out all the balancing.”
He said people won’t be happy with the board’s decisions and will question them. “All those questions are legitimate long-term questions, but it doesn’t change the fact that we did our jobs,” Zimmer said.
In Zimmer’s district, Citizens of the World was allowed to add grades 6-8 to their Mar Vista campus, against the district staff’s recommendations. They withdrew a request to open another school on the Westside.
“I really want to thank the school board for recognizing what our programs do,” said CEO Mark Kleger-Heine. “We are operationally strong and we are proud of what we do. This is democracy, and this is how it works.”
Kleger-Heine said he thought the parents, students and teachers speaking at the meeting helped the school board hammer out a decision that was against staff recommendations. Their expansion to middle school grades was approved, 5-2, but they were asked to present a progress report in six months.
King said she was concerned about safety drills not being performed properly, and she wanted to be consistent with her decisions when it came to charters across the board.
King had worked out a deal with El Camino Real Charter High School to stop their revocation process because the founding executive director, David Fehte, agreed to step down after financial concerns were brought up by the district. The school will also replace other governing board members.
The vote was 6-1 to agree to the deal with Garcia voting no and Rodriguez agreeing with the majority, adding, “Let’s put this behind us.”
The three Magnolia schools have been caught up in allegations by the Turkish government that the organization was importing Turkish nationals and their families who may have been involved in a failed coup attempt.
Magnolia attorney Jerry Simmons told the board, “Our entire country is embroiled in a fierce debate about what immigrants might pose to society, and Magnolia has been swept up in this issue and accused publically of terrorism because of their political views and because they’re not in line with the current dictatorship.”
Some of the Magnolia speakers accused Zimmer of playing favorites by meeting with Turkish officials, and a legal letter sent to the board Tuesday demanded Zimmer recuse himself.
Zimmer declined to comment Tuesday and on Wednesday refused to talk about the Turkish issue, calling it “an unnecessary distraction” that wasn’t relevant to his decision. He said he did consult with the school board’s attorney about whether he could or should involve himself in the vote and said he felt comfortable voting.
Young said she believed that the district decided in June to sink her schools. She was concerned it would become a trend, and two more of her schools will be faced with renewal next year.
“The truth of the matter is that LAUSD has some of the best charters in the country,” Young said. “We are the movement that has provided the seeds of the charter school movement nationally. And it’s because of the charter schools why we have great programs today like pilot schools. So we could be partners, but they are making it hard to do.”
Charter school observers and activists have long been concerned about bias in LA Unified, despite the new superintendent’s call for cooperation.
“At LAUSD they are judged in never-ending witch hunts by an opaque third party, the Office of the Inspector General, that has no obligation to publicly share its findings or allow schools to address or refute them,” said Jason Mandell of the California Charter Schools Association in a letter about LAUSD’s decisions and Huntington Park’s decision to extend a temporary moratorium of charter schools.
But Zimmer said the board will continue to do their best. “If you’re going to be a public school, there’s going to be a level of transparency and accountability,” Zimmer said, “And it’s our job as the authorizers to evaluate that and make difficult decisions. That’s what we did.”
*Updated: This article has been updated to correct that Citizens of the World’s approval was for the full term, not for six months, and the expansion is to grades 6-8. They were asked to present a progress report in six months.