A preliminary report accepted by San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education on Feb. 28 proposed to shuffle charter schools around and group some schools together in the same facility, based on the district’s average daily attendance (ADA) numbers that show lower enrollment than the charter schools project for 2006-2007.

At the board meeting, the district’s Roy McPhail said they had tried to pair schools with similar grade levels and in close geographic proximity, but that did not always work out. For example, the district recommended that Keiller Leadership Academy – a grades 6-8 charter – share its space with Promise, a K-6 school located miles from Keiller.

Gary Larson of the California Charter Schools Association said the proposal to move Promise to Keiller undermines the concept of a community-based public school.

Promise principal Olivia Flores addressed the board on the subject and objected to being paired with a middle school, as well as having to move.

“We need to stay in our community,” she said.

Anne Lee, a member of Keiller’s board of directors, also spoke to the issue.

“To deny Keiller unrestricted use of their current facilities will create major upheaval and will greatly undermine the sense of school community,” she said to trustees. “Keiller is making great strides toward achieving its vision. It’s critical that Keiller operate undisturbed in its current location.”

“We’re currently using every single foot,” said Keiller’s Executive Director Patricia Ladd.

In one of the more puzzling events of the meeting, the report denied facilities to Albert Einstein Academy Charter Middle School even though the school board had just approved the school’s charter in a prior agenda item.

“I’ve been granted a dream but not a place to fulfill it,” said Einstein principal Luci Fowers.

In all, 22 speakers addressed the school board. None of them were favorable to the report. Most said they were shocked that they were not contacted or told of the report until the day of the board meeting.

“You need to sit down and talk with people,” said former state senator Dede Alpert to the school board. “If you move today, you’re going to find that you have so many dissatisfied people and I think appropriately so, because time has not been spent … to come up with the very best possible solution.”

Alpert is a board member of Gompers Charter Middle School, and is arguably the most respected figure in the world of public education in San Diego, if not the state. She has authored or collaborated on hundreds of pages of ground-breaking education legislation in California during her years in Sacramento, while managing to achieve a level of harmony and spirit of cooperation rare among lawmakers.

Alpert asked the board to consider the report more carefully.

“This is not yet soup – not only for Gompers but for so many of the other charter schools here today,” she said. “To have just received this information and suggestions about who would be paired with whom … it seems to me you need more time.”

“I’m really upset,” said Allison Kenda, assistant director at Gompers. “To see that [report today] for the first time is very disappointing to me. It takes our focus off what the real work is.”

Cecil Steppe, chair of the Gompers governing board and president of the San Diego Urban League, also objected to the report, saying there were only two students on the honor roll at Gompers two years ago, before it became a charter school.

“We have now 80-plus students on our honor roll, and it starts with a 3.5 [grade point average] and up,” Steppe said. “We have a propensity to move our children in a very positive way. I’m asking you to meet with us as charters. This is not going to be helpful for us … [and will] move us backwards.”

Board Reaction

At one point during public comments, trustee Katherine Nakamura lowered her head and placed her hand over her eyes, clearly distressed. After public comment, she said, “It is with a heavy heart that I listen to this. I do feel this was sprung on you, and in truth it was sprung on me.”

The role of board members and staff, as educators and as adults, is to exemplify cooperation and collaboration, Nakamura said. “We have charter schools that are succeeding, and they need our support,” she said, apologizing to the charter school community. “We’re making a terrible, terrible mistake by going forward with this today.”

Nakamura was backed by board president Luis Acle, who agreed that more time was needed. He also said the process wasn’t open. “We cannot educate children without the cooperation of the community, parents and teachers,” he said.

“It’s hard to talk collaboration when people sue you,” trustee John de Beck said, supporting the motion to approve Option Two of the report, which processes facilities requests for 15 schools and denies other requests that the district claims are out of compliance.

De Beck and trustees Shelia Jackson and Mitz Lee remained unmoved by the speakers, voting in favor of Option Two. The vote also accepts the preliminary recommendations on facilities assignments, although Jackson insisted the housing charts were only a starting point.

“We have to make an offer,” Jackson said. “Charter schools have a right to respond to this offer.” Jackson’s comments elicited booing from the audience.

After the meeting, Alpert said she was disappointed but will accept that the district’s facilities assignments are preliminary, even though “that’s not the way it appears,” she said. “But I will try to take them at their word.”

“This is so disturbing because you can’t ignore it,” said Keiller’s Ladd. “It takes you off your game plan.”

“I’m hopeful this is an honest starting point and not the last and final offer,” said Bill Harris, a San Diego Cooperative Charter School (SDCCS) parent who spoke at the Feb. 28 board meeting.

SDCCS, a K-8 school with 350 students and waitlists at each grade, had hoped to move into the Fremont school facility in Old Town, to share space with SDUSD adult education activities currently on the premises. However, the district paired SDCCS up with Albert Einstein Academy at the Brooklyn school site at Ash and 30th Street, reduced the SDCCS average daily attendance to 249 and gave the school 10 teaching stations.

Harris said the mandated 20 students per class in grades K-3 leaves 89 students to place in two remaining classrooms – an unacceptable number.

SDCCS will continue to request Fremont, said Harris, who hopes to engage in constructive dialogue with the district on the issue. “The meeting was unfortunately contentious, but there’s a glimmer of hope,” he said. “We will have a place at the table. I’m certain of it.”

Many charter school advocates were confused and dismayed over Carl Cohn’s silence throughout the board meeting. Ladd said she met with Cohn in December and recalled Cohn saying he would not take a position to dismantle charters. “He made me feel there was collaboration and trust,” she said. “Now I’m stunned.”

Although several charter leaders said one effect of the approved proposal is to pit school against school, charters so far are cooperating and strategizing. Representatives of many of the schools met last week to discuss the issue in Sacramento, where they were attending the 2006 California Charter Schools Conference.

Larson said the SDUSD vote was the talk of the conference, coming at a time when charter schools are receiving unprecedented attention for making positive strides in student achievement.

“The district isn’t acting in good faith,” said Larson, who has criticized the school district in the past for refusing to provide buildings to charter schools when some of its school facilities are being leased out to private schools, sitting empty or are only half-occupied.

“The most shameful act is that they denied nine schools any right to a facility while thousands of seats remain empty.” He called the district’s actions unconscionable.

Van Der Laan said the district is being fair and even-handed, and there is no blanket denial of facilities requests. “Each one is being considered on individual merit,” he said. “We are opening the lines of communication with charters. We want all students to excel.”

Read Part One of this story.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at marsha.sutton@voiceofsandiego.org or write a letter to the editor here.

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