Thursday, December 22, 2005 | This is part two in a two-part series. Read part one.

A lawsuit filed last week against the school district brought to light a more insidious method employed by SDUSD to undermine charter school success in the district – denying adequate facilities for charters.

The suit filed against the district by two charter schools in southeast San Diego, Fanno Academy and KIPP Adelante Preparatory, claims SDUSD refuses to provide them with adequate school facilities as required under California law – specifically under voter-approved Proposition 39, which passed in November 2000.

Proposition 39 orders school districts to offer facilities to charter schools when available. It states in part, “Each school district shall make available, to each charter school operating in the school district, facilities sufficient for the charter schools to accommodate all of the charter schools’ in-district students in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were attending other public schools of the district.”

The logic behind the law is that school districts would have to house these students anyway. They are, and remain, the district’s students.

A third plaintiff in the suit against the district is the California Charter Schools Association, which represents the state’s 600 charter schools and their 212,000 students.

According to the CCSA, inadequate facilities are one of the primary reasons charter schools fail, and school districts have been punished legally in the past for violating the law by not providing suitable facilities for their charter schools.

“Unavailability of facilities is the single largest barrier for charter schools,” reads the lawsuit. “Unlike other public schools, charter schools do not have the ability to raise money through property tax assessments, developer fees, parcel taxes or bond initiatives to pay for facilities, and therefore are ‘cut off’ from the predominant source for facilities financing.”

The suit also states that, “in response to this funding inequity, charter schools have been forced to piece together sub-optimal facilities solutions,” often renting unsuitable office or commercial buildings, locating classrooms in trailers, suffering from a lack of playground or gym space, and operating without library services and computer and science labs.

Making money from available facilities

Due to declining enrollment, SDUSD has more than enough seats to house these charter students, and the district is breaking the law by not providing them with adequate facilities, said CCSA spokesperson Gary Larson. The unused, available facilities are being offered instead to private schools that can pay higher rent, he claims, saying this is tantamount to selling out the concerns of the district’s own students to the highest bidder.

It also kills two birds with one stone, because denying facilities to charter schools and offering them to other groups for more money increases revenue for the district while impeding the chances for charter school success.

Three strategies, according to the plaintiffs, are typically employed to sabotage charter schools: (1) denying a facilities request, claiming it is incomplete or invalid; (2) offering sites that are impractical; and (3) outright denial. The lawsuit claims SDUSD is using the third strategy.

Both KIPP and Fanno serve traditionally under-achieving, low-income public school students, and are currently housed in unsatisfactory, costly facilities. KIPP, which stands for “Knowledge Is Power Program,” serves students in grades fifth through eighth and is part of a national network of free, open-enrollment college-preparatory public schools established in 1994. Fanno’s Web site calls itself “an African-centered free K-6 public charter school.” Fanno claims it was forced to turn away more than 100 students due to lack of space.

Larson said in the last year SDUSD has denied eight out of nine charter school facility applications while renting out available facilities to other private schools. Although each of the eight schools submitted properly prepared, timely requests for facilities, each received a letter from the school district denying their applications.

“At this time the district has been unable to identify space available to allocate to your charter school,” reads a portion of the terse, three-sentence letter, dated April 1, 2005 and signed by SDUSD general counsel Tad Seth Parzen, whose last day with the district is Jan. 3, 2006.

The charters repeatedly attempted to negotiate and discuss the issue with the district in the past few months but, according to Larson, never received a reply or response of any kind. Legal action was a last resort, he said.

Larson blasted the school board, saying, “The district’s priorities are clearly on getting as much money as they could rather than on following the law.” Calling their actions shameful, he said, “All five board members voted to lease out facilities at the expense of low-income students.”

Carl Cohn’s role

Since his first day on the job Oct. 3, Cohn has benefited from a prolonged honeymoon with labor, management and the board. But the love-fest may be coming to an end, as Cohn faces this new challenge.

Initial indications are that Cohn is lukewarm to the charter concept, aligning himself with the board’s newfound predilections. In a recent interview with Voice of San Diego, he commented on the Gompers transition, saying that people seem to be excited about school uniforms, a college-going culture, higher behavior standards, fully engaged teachers and a full staff with no vacancies or turnover.

“I would argue that you ought to be able to get that even at a regular school,” said Cohn, who expressed shock at the high number of charter schools in the district.

Although Cohn was not on board during the Gompers debacle, nor was he here earlier this year when many of the charters’ facility requests were denied, he was on the job during the past two months when the charters were attempting to resolve the facilities problem and were ignored by the district.

The era of unquestioned support for charter schools at SDUSD has clearly passed. What Cohn does now, in response to the lawsuit and on the issue in general, will be watched closely by those on both sides of the charter debate. If he can offer innovation and accelerate learning in the regular instructional program, then charters may well be an idea whose time has come and gone for the district.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to escape the irony of the district’s mission statement, printed at the bottom of every SDUSD document, including the charters’ rejection letter: “The mission of San Diego City Schools is to improve student achievement by supporting teaching and learning in the classroom.”

Finding that classroom may be half the battle.

Marsha Sutton writes about education. She can be reached at

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