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How should LA handle charters? Primer presentation for school board sparks new issues

Mike Szymanski | October 27, 2016

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Board member Ref Rodriguez

It was supposed to be a simple primer on the Charter School Petition Authorization Policy at a committee meeting, but it ended up bringing up new issues and old problems.

Scott Schmerelson expressed consternation that his fellow board members often go against the recommendations of the Charter Schools Division staff as well as the superintendent when voting on charter schools.

“I have a problem with our board,” Schmerelson said at the Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday afternoon, about the board not trusting their own district staff. “With all the digging they do they once in a while come up with a denial and the superintendent says deny and we don’t deny.”

Schmerelson added, “I usually send an ‘I’m sorry’ email to them when we don’t agree with them. They do a lot of work, and we should respect their opinion.”

Board member Ref Rodriguez said after the meeting, “I was happy to see that some of the board members were considering having a third-party organizer look at things.” As a charter founder himself, Rodriguez said, “It is sad that I sometimes have to advocate (for a charter school) to get approved by someone else in order to keep them alive because we haven’t figured it out.”

It wasn’t just the handling of charter schools that came in for criticism. Consistently l0w-performing district schools got strong remarks as well.

Board member Richard Vladovic said he remains concerned about low-performing schools in his district that have remained among the state’s lowest for years. “I went a little freaky when I heard it again,” he said. “I would like to know what the plans are for those schools. I went berserko because it seems like it’s business as usual.”

Superintendent Michelle King said she would bring together the local district superintendents and principals from the lowest-performing schools to make presentations about their plans for improvement.

“Each principal has developed a plan and told the parents and said these are the expectations,” King said.

Board member Monica Ratliff said, “We mention a lot about failing schools, and we must get our act together to do an analysis as a board.”

The presentation by the Charter Schools Divison at the committee — which is made up of only board members and doesn’t allow for making policy decisions — came a week after contentious decisions on charter schools, with some that had been approved in the past now being denied. All five denied plan to appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Education and then the state Department of Education if necessary to allow their charter petitions to continue outside the LA Unified umbrella.

“There were a lot of questions about the renewals that we experienced last week,” Rodriguez said. He said there seemed to be some concern with proper communication to the charter schools and he wanted to avoid the schools going to the county and state.

“We shouldn’t care about the county and state,” argued Schmerelson.

But some board members do worry about schools operating at district facilities that are not controlled by the school board.

ScottSchmerelson1“One of the challenges is that we have a very permissive statute and have evolving situations,” board President Steve Zimmer said. He noted that when the charter act was passed, there was no LCFF or LCAP that direct school funding.

“We continue to reflect on a process of these aspects of finding common ground and what these definitions mean, it becomes difficult work,” Zimmer said. “I am specifically interested in oversight, but I’m concerned about the accountability and hopes and dreams of families.”

Robert Perry of the Charter Schools Division gave the presentation that included the history of the school board’s authorization by the state through the Charter School Act and explained the process of approval or denial through the petition reviews for charter schools.

“It weighs heavy on our shoulders that we know the petitioner group and that they are likely to successfully implement the plans for our students,” Perry said. He pointed out that it is important to get the charter schools off to a good start.

“We tell them if they are going to be up for denial so they may withdraw the petition, but we do not go through line by line to tell them how to fix it,” Perry said. “It is our responsibility to see that they have the tools to fix what they need.”

The Charter School Division looks for conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency that could result in denials of the charter schools.

Board member George McKenna wondered aloud if there should be more set standards and guidelines to assess what is educationally sound for a school. He said he recalled that the district once gave awards to underachieving schools that were improving. “It’s a terrible thing to believe you’re doing well when you’re not,” he said.

King said that when a school is up for renewal after five years, there is data from the charter school’s history that they can reference. “We compare that to similar schools and programs before we make our recommendations,” King said.

Perry said there are no surprises when his staff meets with the charter schools and asks for data.

But after the staff makes recommendations, as McKenna pointed out, “There are seven different interpretations as to what academically sound is, and it is subjective. It’s critical that we have some aspect of coming to terms with that.”

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