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Monday, January 16, 2006 | The San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education is a baffling collection of eclectic politicians. Their reign in 2005 has been characterized by mixed signals, conflicting public statements, puzzling actions and inconsistent voting patterns – particularly regarding charter schools. And 2006 promises to be just as inexplicable, if the latest board meeting is any indication.

Board members voted last Tuesday to rescind the district’s ill-conceived charter-school facilities policy, adopted in March 2005 and amended in May. Four speakers addressed the board to encourage the repeal of the policy, which they say places hardships on charter schools applying legitimately for the use of district facilities.

There was no board discussion. Following public comment, board President Luis Acle made one brief statement, Superintendent Carl Cohn said two words in response, and the vote was taken.

The obvious question comes to mind: Why would trustees vote unanimously to repeal a policy they just passed unanimously less than one year earlier?

If this were simply a legal matter, one could understand. There is a case to be made that the original policy was illegal, given a recent court decision in July, the Ridgecrest case, that requires school districts to treat its regular students and its charter school students equally with regard to availability and adequacy of facilities. In a written recommendation on the agenda item, district deputy general counsel Theodore Buckley wrote that the policy may no longer be valid “in light of the July 2005 decision of the California Court of Appeal in the Ridgecrest case.”

Additionally, there is the Dec. 14 lawsuit against the district to consider. This suit – filed against the school district by the California Charter Schools Association and two SDUSD charter schools, Fanno Academy and KIPP Adelante Preparatory, both located in southeast San Diego – charges that SDUSD has systematically denied its charter schools access to adequate school facilities as required under Proposition 39 and California law, subordinating the facility needs of charters to those of private schools that can pay more to lease any unused space.

However, Tina Dyer, independent counsel for SDUSD, denied that the board action last week was related to the December lawsuit. “We had plans to rescind the policy before,” she said.

Dyer, an attorney with the San Diego-based law firm of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz, said the decision to re-evaluate the charter school facility policy came about after a meeting with charter school representatives in the fall. It was just a coincidence that the item was on the agenda so soon after the December lawsuit was filed, she said.

Gary Larson of the CCSA has a different take on the matter. “It is clear this lawsuit has moved mountains,” he said, calling the repeal of the policy “a step in the right direction” and a “bold move” for new Superintendent Cohn, whose first day with the district was Oct. 3.

Charter schools are public schools of choice that serve students within the district. They operate under the umbrella of the authorizing school district but are given more autonomy and independence. They may hire and fire their own employees, deliver instructional programs outside the parameters of labor contracts, and elect their own governing boards that usually include parents and teachers. Finding adequate facilities is considered to be the biggest hurdle to charter school success.

The rescinded policy appeared to allow the district to favor private institutions that can pay more to rent or lease unused facilities than charter schools can. A summary of the district’s now-voided document on school facilities says it all: “The income generated by lease payments supports the district’s essential work and funds the district’s mission of enhancing teaching and learning. In the current budget crisis, lease income is essential and should not be relinquished.”

The wording in the original policy implies that the district’s charter school students should take a back seat to the needs of students in the district attending regular schools. Its guidelines also indicate that the district would consider renting or leasing facilities to charter schools only if the schools could meet certain conditions, many of which charter advocates say are unreasonable.

How did such a policy pass unanimously when, during the previous seven years under former Superintendent Alan Bersin, the district was regarded as one of the most charter-friendly in the state?

Larson said SDUSD, the second-largest school district in California, has been a leader statewide in the charter school movement, with one in 10 students attending a charter school. He called the district, which serves 135,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12th, “a hotbed for innovation.”

The answer? Three new board members were elected in November 2004, in an election that signified a radical change in direction for SDUSD on many levels. The pro-charter, pro-Bersin era had clearly ended, as the three new trustees joined with veteran John de Beck to begin questioning the charter movement in the district. Trustee Katherine Nakamura became the lone, reliable charter supporter, although even she has occasional misgivings.

Compounding the problem, there was fresh hostility toward charters from the board in the early months of 2005, after the Gompers Middle School charter application process gave the district a huge, very public black eye. In the aftermath, as each trustee was looking out for his or her own interests, questionable policies and practices were approved before the courts had weighed in on the subject.

So if the annulment of the prior policy was done simply to comply with recent court judgments, then it is understandable. Their hands were tied and there was no choice. What is not understandable is the enthusiastic endorsement to repeal the policy, expressed by Acle, whose previous reluctance to openly support the charter movement makes his comments a tad confusing.

The superintendent’s recommendation to rescind the existing policy, according to Cohn’s written report, pledges “to work together in good faith with the charter school community to provide all of the students of this community with effective educational programs in clean and safe school facilities.”

Unchallenged by his colleagues, Acle said he was pleased with these words. “I interpret this to mean that charter schools are our schools and charter students are our students,” he said, with great flourish.

“That’s correct,” replied Cohn, to audience applause.

Anybody new to the scene would assume that these board members couldn’t do enough to help their struggling charter schools find facilities, yet the facts belie their devotion to the reform movement.

What they do behind closed doors and what they do in public, in front of vocal parents and voters, are often quite contradictory. Although it’s a positive sign that trustees have rejected a charter-hostile document, it did not necessarily happen because they suddenly saw the light and realized the folly of their ways. More likely this action came about because legal counsel advised them that the policy would not stand up in court.

“Squirrelly” – a term used by Cohn when he was first hired to describe these board members – doesn’t begin to define the fickle, erratic positions taken by trustees who seem to have opinions that change as the wind blows.

This action was indeed a step in the right direction, a phrase often repeated. But they are not there yet. Rescinding this policy simply brings the district back to neutral. It is that next step, a new facilities policy being developed now to be presented to the board for adoption in the next few months, that will tell the story.

Marsha Sutton writes about education. She can be reached at

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