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Anger erupts over LAUSD’s lack of transparency about sharing space with public charter schools — and inflames the board election

Mike Szymanski | April 28, 2017

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Equitas CEO Malka Borrego, left, on Thursday afternoon as protesters walk in front of her school.

It seems everyone is angry at LA Unified over its lack of transparency and leadership surrounding proposed co-locations of charter schools at district campuses.

District staff, school board members, charter school leaders and parents throughout Los Angeles all say the number and intensity of the protests over these Prop. 39 co-locations are at an all-time high.

On Monday, the 95 charter school requests with 57 new locations will be finalized, but LA Unified is not required to notify parents or communities at any point in the process. Even some school leaders say they don’t find out until late in the game.

The frustration has sparked protests on both sides of the issue and has repeatedly surfaced along the campaign trail in the school board race, as co-location has become a prominent, passionate wedge issue.

LA Unified is in charge of managing the process of allocating unused district space to charters under Prop. 39, the state law that stipulates that “public school facilities should be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools.” Each fall, charters that have been approved for growth by the district make their space requests, then LA Unified offers them rooms at existing schools. This mating game culminates on May 1.

• JUST IN: Here’s LAUSD’s “final offer” to charters, which they have until Monday to approve. 

The protests over these Prop. 39 co-locations are reaching dynamic proportions partly because many school leaders and parents are finding out about these arrangements at the last minute. A big part of the problem is the lack of transparency by the district on both sides: charter schools don’t know what spaces are readily available and where, and traditional schools are given little advance notice that their spaces may be shared by an incoming charter school. Parents on both sides find themselves left in the dark.

Families from Magnolia protest Thursday in English and Spanish as they walk to Equitas Academy.

“The problem is that these demonstrations are scaring the children, and they are getting more and more disruptive,” said Malka Borrego, the CEO of Equitas Academy Charter Schools, who on Thursday afternoon was dealing with the 13th protest this year in front of her Equitas Academy school in the Pico-Union area near downtown Los Angeles. Equitas last fall had requested 10 classrooms and two administrative spaces for the growing student population at Equitas Academy, and the district then offered it space at Magnolia Avenue Elementary School.

But some parents and staff at Magnolia have been forcefully fighting the co-location, aided by teacher union organizers.

Thursday’s UTLA-led demonstration of about 50 parents was smaller than usual — they have been as high as 200 parents, students, and teachers — but the demonstrations are always noisy, Borrego said. “Our students are inside the classrooms now reading, and they’re hearing people shouting against their school.”

Borrego has to explain the demonstrations not only to the students but also to her own 6-year-old daughter in kindergarten. She has also heard rumors that demonstrations have been planned in front of her family’s home.

David Hessell, a union representative and fourth-grade teacher at Magnolia Elementary, joined the march on Equitas.

In the line-up of protesters outside Equitas on Thursday, David Hessell, a union representative and a fourth-grade teacher at Magnolia, said the parents of his school where he has taught since 1997 are concerned about losing excess space that is housing other programs.

“There is a music teacher who has taught at the school for 17 years, and they have an orchestra,” Hessell said. “We are losing three computer labs as well as rooms used for art and intervention programs. We don’t know where those programs will go now.”

At another protest this week, parents called for a boycott of Gabriella Charter School and demanded that LA Unified stop offering Trinity Street Elementary School as a co-located campus.

“This could easily have been stopped if the district was more transparent,” said Alejandra Delgadillo, who helped plan Wednesday’s protest in front of a downtown market. “We just found out about the district offering seven or eight classrooms to this charter school, and it has created a lot of unnecessary fears and anxiety for us. The district just tells us that this is the law and we cannot do anything about it, but of course when there is no transparency about this going on then, of course, we cannot do anything about it.”

The anger has spilled over at school board meetings in recent months as scores of parents from dozens of schools in every part of the district have shown up to address the board.

“We need to make a full correction to Prop. 39,” board member Monica Garcia said.

School board President Steve Zimmer said the protests have hit a tipping point and are more serious than ever. “The protests we are seeing are more organic and they are coming from very, very racially and economically diverse parts of the city,” he said, although he acknowledged that UTLA has orchestrated protests in the past. “Yes, we lost a court decision and we have to act appropriately, but this is something that needs to be fixed. Let’s be clear, this is a broken law that was never, ever intended for these purposes.”

UTLA’s website includes its own list of “Targeted Charter Schools” — 153 schools and contacts to organize protests, even if no co-locations were in the works at some sites. Parents opposing co-locations were called to meet today at UTLA.

Prop. 39 has become a persistent campaign issue as well, particularly in Zimmer’s District 4 race. At a debate this week between Zimmer and Nick Melvoin, who is challenging Zimmer in the May 16 runoff, Melvoin reflected that the problems stem from “a lack of trust and a lack of transparency.”

Melvoin said, “Schools are told different things about different campuses. Parents don’t trust the district. Two schools in the last two weeks had to close their doors while still serving kids. That happened in part because of the lack of trust.”

“LA Unified is doing it better than any other district in the state, but there’s a long way to go” on the co-location process, said Ricardo Soto, an attorney with the California Charter Schools Association, which has sued to get LA Unified to expand its definition of available space and helped define a court order that the district is now operating under. “The district needs to make the offers as transparent as possible, and it’s still not always the case.”

Soto noted that charter school students are public school students and have the right to attend school in the taxpayer-paid spaces.

“My sense is that there are more protests this year against charter school co-locations than in previous years,” Soto said, adding that many charter school board meetings have also been disrupted. “My sense is that UTLA is involved in organizing these protests and there are teachers going to the parents in the community.”

Soto added, “The protests that are being held at the co-located sites are intimidating and frightening to parents and students.”

In order to even find out where unused classroom space is, CCSA has to file a request under the Public Records Act. This is in contrast to other large urban districts in which many students are served by public charter schools, like New York City, where the New York City Department of Education annually publishes an underutilized space memo on its website and does extensive community engagement around co-location proposals.

By the district’s own schedule reported on its website, the charter schools must make their requests by Nov. 1 of each year for the next school year, then by Feb. 1 the district makes the charter schools an offer of available classroom space. On March 1, the charter school responds to the preliminary proposal, and on April 1 the district gives a final offer. Then, by May 1, the charter school must accept or refuse the district’s final offer. Nowhere in the procedures is there any required notification to the parents or community of the potentially co-located school.

Superintendent Michelle King signs off on every charter school offer and space co-location, said Sean Jernigan, the Charter Division’s operation coordinator who presents explanations to schools about the Prop. 39 procedures.

LA School Report asked in mid-March for the charter school requests and what co-locations King had signed off on. The district responded that even though those documents were completed by March 1, they wouldn’t be available until May 9. (After repeated requests, the district provided that list of schools and their charter offers on Tuesday. Here it is.)

Malka Borrego, CEO of Equitas Academy

“There would be a lot less tension if the communities in the schools were notified much earlier,” said Borrego, who had a successful co-location with another Equitas school at Los Feliz Elementary for a year. “I am from this area, we don’t want to take any resources away from any children. I was told by the principal at Magnolia that none of their services would be lost.”

Meanwhile, Equitas has to pay $1,000 a day for extra security that they would rather spend in the classroom, and the police had to be called out during one demonstration that got unruly. Two of their charter school meetings were disrupted by Magnolia parents.

“We are public school students, and there is still a lot of misinformation about charter schools,” Borrego said. Flyers against Equitas were posted in nearby businesses until she explained to them her side of the story. “I wish that the district would facilitate a dialogue, but instead the protests are escalating.”

King, Zimmer, and Garcia have expressed support for Equitas, Borrego said, and Zimmer “was particularly concerned about the safety of our students.” She said, “I still feel like we need to have forums, and the district must bring these things up earlier in the process.”

It’s that sense of lack of leadership from the district that is upsetting all parties — from principals who aren’t allowed to talk to each other during the co-locating process, to parents who feel left in the dark, to district staff whose job is to facilitate the process but get hit from both sides.

“It is an onerous law with onerous regulations,” Jernigan explained in March to 100 parents at Arminta Street Elementary School, where the district had offered five classrooms to Celerity Cardinal Charter.

Even after Celerity announced it didn’t want the space, Arminta parents said they remain wary until the offer expires next week on May 1.

“Every year we must go through this process and figure out how to accommodate almost 40,000 seats and we have 57 days to do it,” Jernigan told the parents at Arminta. “That is like moving the population of Culver City every year.”

Parent Richard Valdez told Jernigan and the half-dozen district staff at the Arminta meeting, “The whole procedure could be better for us all if the district was just up front about these co-location offers and not doing these backroom deals that we find out about too late. Something needs to change.”

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