Wednesday, January 18, 2006 | If Ron Nehring has his way, the Grossmont Union High School District could become the first of its kind in California to become an all-charter district.

Saying he wants to make East County a leader in the charter school movement, GUHSD school board member Nehring has proposed a bold concept that would convert all 10 of the district’s regular high schools into independent charter schools and transform the East County district into a charter district under California law.

Not a minor undertaking. But Nehring seems determined to follow through on his radical proposal, and the school board is set to decide Wednesday whether the plan has enough merit to take the next step and approve preliminary exploration of the idea.

Nehring, who is also the chair of San Diego County Republican Party, said his interest in transforming the entire Grossmont district to a charter district was triggered by Grossmont’s Steele Canyon High School petition to go charter in early November. “When the Steele Canyon proposal came up, it prompted me to look at what’s involved,” he said.

Rather than do it piecemeal, one school at a time, Nehring said a legally recognized, all-charter district would simplify the charter process. “I want to do this at a district-wide level,” he said. “I want to do it in an orderly way.”

Skeptics say that Nehring, who was appointed to the school board in 2004 and whose term is up in 2006, simply wants to reject the Steele Canyon proposal and is suggesting the district become charter only to delay and derail Steele Canyon’s petition.

“This is enormously baseless,” Nehring responded. “I’ve been a supporter of charter schools for 10 years. My support is genuine and well-known. I find it insulting, questioning my motives.”

Nehring’s proposal – which he said is supported by school board president Jim Kelly and district superintendent Terry Ryan – calls for a two-stage plan that “would create a streamlined standardized charter agreement for all 10 non-charter high schools in the district” and would “study the potential impact of converting all such schools to charter schools under a Master Charter Agreement.”

The first phase of the plan would be the development of the Master Charter Agreement, which would take six months. In June, the school board would review the draft MCA and either approve or veto the plan.

If preliminary findings are endorsed by the school board, the proposal would enter the second phase, from June through the end of 2006, when experts would research and study its potential impact on the quality of education and examine how the conversion of the district’s high schools to charter schools would affect learning and instructional programming.

The aggressive timeline calls for the results of the impact study to be discussed and the MCA to be prepared and finalized for approval by the school board in December. It would then advance to the State Board of Education for review in January 2007. The district’s Web site provides a summary of information prepared for the state board.

If everything proceeds according to the timeline, Grossmont’s high schools could convert to charter status as early as the fall of 2007.

However, the plan is highly ambitious and fraught with complex obstacles. Gary Larson, of the California Charter Schools Association, said nothing even close to this has ever been approved in the state. “It’s going to be difficult to do,” he said. “This will take a thoughtful, year-long study, with a clear mission.”

Nehring said he spoke at length with CCSA president Caprice Young and has the organization’s full support.

Larson confirmed that CCSA will lend its expertise and in-house assistance to the district, to design a charter proposal that is prepared correctly, with every issue addressed. “We are absolutely supportive of this,” he said. “We want to make sure the proposal makes a compelling case that will improve academic success for the entire community.”

If successful, the proposal would mean the all-charter district would be doing what districts should be doing, according to Larson: setting academic standards, holding schools accountable and providing the necessary resources for schools to accomplish their mission.

Larson said CCSA would like both the district-wide proposal and the Steele Canyon proposal to proceed simultaneously. “We support both efforts,” he said. “We want to see both proposals be first-rate.”

CCSA is focusing its immediate attention on Steele Canyon. Acknowledging that the timeline will be tight, Larson said, “We will help strengthen their charter proposal so they can open in the fall of 2006.”

Nehring considers the preliminary Steele Canyon charter to be weak and doubts whether the school could meet all its legal requirements in time to open this fall. But he bristled at the suggestion that he was opposed to their efforts, saying he would offer his full support for the separate Steele Canyon charter if it were properly prepared.

The 24,000-student district, centered in La Mesa, operates 11 high schools, one of which – Helix High – is already a charter. Charter schools are public schools of choice that operate under the umbrella of the authorizing school district but are given more autonomy and independence than regular schools and are not bound by traditional labor union contracts. They have the freedom to hire and fire their own employees and deliver instructional programs designed by their own governing boards.

Nehring said his top priority is to give schools more parental control. “Parental input is very important,” he said. “[With charters], parents would have much more influence over their schools.”

Nehring offered assurances that the school board would not be involved in site-based governance, curriculum and instruction issues, should the MCA be accepted, saying each school would unquestionably be granted the unique autonomy that defines charter schools.

The role of the school board would change, however, and be limited in its scope and authority. “I realize it’s a bit unconventional for an elected official to reduce the power of that elected official,” Nehring said. “But this would liberate us from state regulations, and we would improve academic performance.”

Plagued by labor unrest, the GUHSD and its conservative Board of Trustees has frequently been accused of being anti-union. But Nehring denies that his proposal is an attempt to bust the teachers union. “This is such fantasy,” he said, adding that, under his plan, “teachers will actually have more flexibility in the classroom.”

Suspicion remains, however. If Nehring can be persuaded to support the Steele Canyon charter petition, independent of his all-charter drive, then many believe this would go a long way toward demonstrating his genuine interest in the charter movement.

Converting Grossmont to an all-charter district is a dramatic proposal that, if successful, would represent a stunning challenge to traditional public education. Most believe the key to the adoption of such an intriguing concept is establishing an irrefutable case that student achievement will be improved under the new plan. And then convincing a wary community.

Marsha Sutton writes about education. She can be reached at

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