[Part One in a two-part analysis]

The first indication of trouble came in the form of a letter dated Feb. 15 from Sandra Robles, the acting director of the Office of School Choice for the San Diego Unified School District.

The letter, sent to 24 SDUSD charter schools and written in response to the charter schools’ requests for facilities for the 2006-2007 school year, notified the schools that their requests were incomplete and asked each of them to respond to the district with further information, some of it extensive, by Feb. 21.

Many schools did not receive the letter until Friday, Feb. 16. Keiller Leadership Academy didn’t get its letter until 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21 – four hours before the district’s deadline. With Monday, Feb. 20 a legal holiday, the letter had many charter school administrators scrambling to meet the district’s demands.

Most of the charter schools that received Robles’ letter sent their requests for facilities in September 2005. San Diego Cooperative Charter School sent its request to the district the earliest, on June 17, 2005. None were ever notified before Feb. 15 that their requests were incomplete.

Yet the letter states, “The district is required to provide the charter school a reasonable opportunity to respond to any concerns raised by the district.”

“Who in their right mind responds eight months later and asks for a response in five days over a three-day weekend?” said Gary Larson, of the California Charter Schools Association.

Signing her letter “In kind regards,” Robles wrote that, by law, charters are required to submit detailed information on the number of students projected for the coming year, how that number was determined, specific geographic and demographic information on students, the school’s instructional calendar and a description of the educational program as it relates to facilities needs.

According to the laws referenced, the projections must also include the number of in-district students broken down by grade level and the regular schools in the district the students would otherwise attend.

This information was needed by the district “to be eligible for allocation of district facilities,” Robles wrote – citing specific education code and California regulations.

Larson called the demand for this level of detail a “hyper-technical” request and accused the district of “continuing to break the law” by erecting unreasonable hurdles and denying facilities to charter schools.

But Dick Van Der Laan, a consultant hired by SDUSD to assist with communications, said it’s not possible to be arbitrary or overly permissive about the requirements. “There is a proper way to do it,” he said. If standards are met, he said, then both the district and its charters “must live up to their obligations.”

Charter schools are free public schools that operate under a charter, usually authorized by a school district, that gives sites more local control and autonomy over their curriculum, instruction and business practices. A lack of access to adequate facilities remains the primary obstacle to charter school success, according to CCSA.

Charters receive the bulk of their funding from the state based upon average, daily per-pupil attendance, just as most school districts do, which means that school districts that approve charters lose money for each student who attends a charter school.

For San Diego, a leader in the number of charter schools in the state, this represents a loss of approximately $61 million, according to the district’s chief financial officer, Scott Patterson. He said the district receives about $5,100 per student based upon each school’s Average Daily Attendance, and there are just over 12,000 students – about 10 percent of the district’s total student population – who attend charter schools.

Because they lose state funding when their students choose to enroll in charter schools, many school districts have not been overly receptive to the charter school concept, which is why charter advocates have pushed for legislation to lower barriers.

California education code (47614) now requires that school districts “make available, to each charter school operating in the school district, facilities sufficient for the charter school to accommodate all of the charter school’s 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 law also states that a reasonable fee can be charged for the use of district facilities. This directive was approved by California voters in 2000 under Proposition 39.

Despite the legislation, districts with unsympathetic school boards have found ways to thwart the charter movement. In many cases, legal action has resulted, as happened in San Diego in December when CCSA and two charter schools filed a lawsuit against the district, charging that SDUSD failed to provide adequate facilities as required by law.

The number of charter schools in San Diego exploded when the district was headed by former superintendent Alan Bersin, who was and remains, in his new job as the state’s education secretary, a staunch charter supporter.

New Superintendent Carl Cohn has been less enthusiastic, yet no one knew quite how lukewarm he was until the school board meeting last week.

The Other Shoe Drops

After racing to reply to Robles’ letter before the Feb. 21 deadline, charter school advocates braced themselves for a staff report on the subject at the district’s board of education meeting on Feb. 28 – a date almost exactly one year after the memorable March 1, 2005 school board meeting when massive community outpouring convinced a reluctant school board to vote 5-0 to approve the ground-breaking charter petitions for Gompers and Keiller Middle Schools.

This year’s meeting would not go so well for Gompers and Keiller – nor for most other charter schools in the district.

A facilities report, distributed to charter school personnel and the public at the board meeting, hit like a bomb, stunning those who filled the packed auditorium – including charter school board members, principals, directors, teachers, community members, parents and students.

The report was prepared and presented by Sue Ann Evans, an attorney with Miller Brown & Dannis, a law firm with offices in San Diego, Long Beach and San Francisco. Evans was also the author of the Robles letter, according to district staff. This was confirmed by Van Der Laan, who worked with Cohn when both were employed by the Long Beach Unified School District.

Evans said all but one charter school – the San Diego Cooperative Charter School – failed to provide the required information by Feb. 21, which, she wrote, “is grounds for rejection of the request for facilities” and “has prejudiced the district and interfered with the district’s ability to process the requests.”

Evans and Roy McPhail, SDUSD’s director of instructional facilities planning, offered two options for the school board, neither of which had been seen prior to the board meeting by any of the charter schools affected.

Option One was to deny all requests. Option Two, eventually approved by the school board in a divided 3-2 vote, was to approve facilities requests for 15 schools that had sufficient historical data, while denying the other nine.

The nine schools whose facilities requests were denied are: Albert Einstein Academy Charter Middle School, King/Chavez Preparatory Academy, King/Chavez Academy of Excellence, Holly Drive Leadership Academy, City Arts Charter, Fanno Academy, Jola Community School, Momentum Middle School Charter, and A. Phillip Randolph Leadership Academy High School.

Of those approved, however, Evans provided lower Average Daily Attendance numbers in her report than the schools projected – in some cases, much lower. And although the district had required the charter schools to provide evidence of how they arrived at their projections, the district provided no such information to support its lower numbers.

Van Der Laan said McPhail and Evans could explain how they arrived at the lower ADA numbers for each school, but neither returned phone calls for this story.

“I have no idea how they came up with their ADA,” said Vince Riveroll, director of Gompers Charter Middle School, which estimated 940 ADA next year while the district came in at 558. The school currently has 850 students.

In all cases but two, the district’s ADA was lower than the school’s estimate. This is significant because districts can allot instructional facilities based upon projected ADA.

The report determined the number of teaching stations each school would need based upon the district’s low ADAs, not the charters’ higher projections, and a formula was used that placed more than 32 students in a classroom in some grades.

“If I look at your projections and do some simple math, that puts at least 31 students in every single classroom every single day,” said Geoff Martin of Keiller Leadership Academy, during public comment. “That’s not what we’re about. It’s not right to cram students in classrooms. It’s these formulas that have caused us to be in this situation.”

KLA projected 564 students for next year, while the district estimated an ADA of 390, plus 34 in special education.

“You can put 36 in a classroom and still maintain standards,” said KLA executive director Patricia Ladd, the following day. “But you can’t do that for 6th- through 8th-graders who are reading at 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-grade levels.”

In Part Two tomorrow, read reactions from Dede Alpert, Cecil Steppe and others, to the school board’s vote against the charter school community.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at marsha.sutton@voiceofsandiego.org

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