In Partnership with 74

‘A breakdown of the partnership’: LAUSD board denies high-performing charter school’s renewal

Sarah Favot and Mike Szymanski | October 3, 2017

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Josh Stock, executive director of Lashon Academy.

The LA Unified school board on Tuesday unanimously denied a renewal petition for a high-performing charter school, citing a breakdown of communication between the school and the district’s Charter Schools Division.

Officials from Lashon Academy had tried to negotiate with the district around its special education policies, but the district said the charter school’s petition did not meet requirements of a federal consent decree. All six school board members present agreed with the Charter Schools Division’s recommendation to deny the school’s five-year renewal petition.

“I am concerned that part of why this recommendation is here is the result of a breakdown of the partnership between the district and the charter operator,” said school board member Kelly Gonez, who represents the East San Fernando Valley where the school is located.

Lashon Academy, a K-6 school in Van Nuys, is the city’s only charter school with a Hebrew-language immersion program. Academic performance, which the district called strong to moderate, was not a reason the school’s renewal petition was denied.

It was the first test for the pro-reform board, where a majority of its members were elected with financial support from the charter school community, to see if they would turn down a charter. A district analysis of five years of votes on charter school renewal petitions found that the board approved renewal petitions despite the charter division’s denial recommendations more than half the time.

The school board will consider 73 charter renewal petitions over the next school year. LA Unified, the largest district charter school authorizer in the nation, oversees 224 charter schools. Tuesday’s vote could send a message to other charter school leaders who try to negotiate with the district on its required language.

“There needs to be more bright lines to clear up what the district requirements are,” Gonez said in an interview after the vote. “I understand there needs to be some legal language and policy, but there also needs to be some flexibility and some discretion, that is the whole purpose of the charter system. I think this will be coming up again and the board needs to look at it.”

Gonez said she hadn’t been informed of the Charter Division’s recommendation to deny Lashon’s petition until Monday of last week, “then we looked to see what we could do.”

“I am disappointed with the outcome of the decision because this is a high-performing charter school, and we should support it. It is not perfect and there are areas of growth, but it is serving the community well.”

 She added, “I was disappointed I was not able to help earlier.”

The Los Angeles Advocacy Council, a steering committee of 17 charter school leaders, released a statement in response to the school board’s vote saying the process for making changes to district-required language is a “major obstacle” and called for more collaboration.

“We remain committed to working with the district to ensure that no additional schools are penalized for seeking student-centered policy updates that would increase transparency, consistency, accountability, and sustainability,” the statement said in part.

(Courtesy: Lashon Academy Charter School)

School leaders said the district charged “exorbitant” fees for a “dearth of services” to be part of its Special Education Local Plan Area, which provides special education services for nearly all of the district-authorized independent charter schools and district schools. Lashon Academy leaders wanted to join another SELPA but hadn’t specified which one and hadn’t agreed to be part of LA Unified’s SELPA.

Both sides accused the other of not being cooperative.

Lashon Academy Executive Director Josh Stock said the school was willing to put the district-required special education language back into its renewal petition, but it never got confirmation in writing that the school could join another SELPA.

“I’m confident we could have come to an agreement on these policy issues if the process had been different,” Stock said. “The process has not been fair or collaborative and resulted in district staff painting an inaccurate picture of our school.”

José Cole-Gutiérrez, head of the district’s Charter Schools Division, said he didn’t receive a commitment in writing from the school that they would adhere to the federal consent decree that ensures the district and the schools it authorizes are in compliance with federal laws to protect the rights of students with disabilities.

“These are resolvable issues, we have said at every juncture. We could have gotten to yes,” Cole-Gutiérrez told the board, saying his office tried to partner with the school.

“I do not believe the process is broken. I believe the process can continue to be improved,” he added later.

School board member Kelly Gonez.

Stock said while the charter division had not communicated with the school within the last month, Gonez’s office reached out last week and was supportive, but it was the 11th hour.

“She worked with us from Thursday on, and it was just too late,” Stock said in an interview after the vote. “Other board members tried to help too, but it wasn’t enough. We wanted to include the language for the SELPA, but that was too late too, they said.”

Gonez said during the board debate that it’s preferable for high-performing charter schools to remain under the district’s oversight rather than being authorized by another entity.

“I think it’s essential that the district staff and charter operators are working together in good faith and are being good partners throughout the oversight process,” she said. “I think this an important moment for both sides to reflect and to assess and really be making sure that we’re collaborating rather than approaching these issues adversarially.”

After the vote, Stock said the school plans to appeal the board’s denial to the county board of education.

“We want the oversight, we respect that. We want bad charters to be shut down. We want to have the collaboration. We do want support, we want it to be better. But the district staff have this in-the-box thinking and that is what is hurting them,” he said.

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